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In delay-plagued Brazil, World Cup airport welcome to include a tent

General view of the extensive renovations at Sao Paulo International airport in Guarulhos September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
General view of the extensive renovations at Sao Paulo International airport in Guarulhos September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

By Brad Haynes and Andrew Downie

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil promised the world it would roll out the red carpet at 21st century airports for this year's World Cup, but soccer fans landing in Fortaleza, which will host six matches including a quarter final, will instead be shepherded through a temporary canvas structure.

The delays at Fortaleza are the latest embarrassing evidence that several crucial upgrades will not be ready when the tournament starts in mid-June. The deadline for a new airport terminal in Fortaleza has been pushed back to 2017.

"The provisional structure is not what we wanted, but it's what we have to resolve the problem in Fortaleza," Wellington Moreira Franco, Brazil's civil aviation secretary, told local media late on Monday.

Work on Brazil's chronically overcrowded airports is much further behind schedule than the construction of new stadiums, many of which have missed deadlines and run over budgets but should be ready for kickoff according to World Cup organizers.

The Sports Ministry reported in September that half of the airport renovations under way would be completed by May, but those time lines look unrealistic despite workers toiling around the clock in many cities.

The world will clearly be watching what happens. An estimated 600,000 foreigners are expected at the month-long World Cup, and 3 million Brazilians are expected to travel during the tournament.

In Fortaleza, where the six games being hosted will include Brazil's match against Mexico as well as a quarter final, the new terminal is one quarter finished and authorities have decided to break work into two phases, wrapping up in 2017.

Delays at airports in Salvador and Cuiaba have also forced officials to consider backup plans, although Moreira Franco has held back definitive judgment in those cases.

The worries don't end there.

The new terminal at the international airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city and a likely stopover for most foreign fans, is still looking skeletal. Airlines are concerned about shifting operations to new gates without enough time ahead of the tournament.

At the international airport near Belo Horizonte, site of six games including a semifinal, workers over the weekend carried steel bars alongside families pushing baggage carts. The entrance to the airport has been consumed by construction, and travelers stroll past exposed rebar and piles of rubble as workers tear apart an overhead structure.

"THE CLASSIC QUICK FIX"

Brazil's cramped concrete airports are a dramatic example of the outdated infrastructure that has choked economic growth for the past three years. President Dilma Rousseff auctioned rights to upgrade and run five major airports, but the timing of concessions means few improvements will be ready this year.

"The process of the privatizations took too long, so the reforms have been compromised," said Adriano Pires, president of the Brazilian Infrastructure Institute, a consulting group in Rio de Janeiro. New operators of airports in Rio and Belo Horizonte took over after winning auctions in November, leaving little time for real reforms, he said.

"All we'll get is makeup to hide the awful state of the airports. It's the classic quick fix in Brazil," Adriano said.

Similar issues face public transportation projects, many of which have been abandoned or cut back because they were started late or derailed by legal challenges. At least five of the 12 host cities won't complete the projects they promised in time for the World Cup.

Even if planned airport renovations were finished by the World Cup, passenger traffic may exceed capacity by as much as 50 percent according to a report prepared by the Sports Ministry with the help of outside consultants in 2011.

Senior officials now dismiss those grim forecasts, but their pressure on airlines highlights the unprecedented challenge facing the local aviation industry.

FALLING AIRFARE

Brazil's government has repeatedly warned airlines to avoid price gouging, but backed off the threat of opening domestic routes to foreign carriers.

Tourism officials urged Brazil's two biggest airlines, Gol Linhas Aereas and TAM, the local unit of Chile-based Latam Airlines Group, to follow the lead of smaller rivals Avianca and Azul, which capped the price of flights during the World Cup at 999 reais ($420).

Authorities have also authorized nearly 2,000 new domestic flights during the tournament, helping to ease price pressures but increasing the load on host cities' airports. Air traffic in Cuiaba, a farming boomtown of about 1 million people in western Brazil, should jump nearly 50 percent.

The relief is already noticeable in ticket prices for at least one company. Gol has been the most aggressive at booking sales on new routes, in many cases halving the cost of tickets between host cities during the World Cup since last Wednesday, according to online price searches.

In one of the most dramatic examples, a 90-minute flight that Colombian fans can take to Cuiaba the day after a match in Brasilia now costs 147 reais, according to price comparison website Kayak.com -- down from the 696 reais listed last week.

Other airlines have been slower to start selling the new flights announced by authorities on Thursday, but competitive pressure is appearing in more subtle ways.

Since Avianca and Azul capped World Cup airfare at 999 reais, TAM and Gol have shifted prices on several rival routes to the same informal ceiling -- or, in rare cases, 998 reais.

(Additional reporting by Asher Levine and Brian Winter; Editing by Todd Benson and Leslie Adler)

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