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Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff gestures during the launching ceremony of an investment plan at airports, in Brasilia Dec. 20, 2012. While air travel has expanded rapidly in Brazil – an area larger than the 48 contiguous U.S. states – the country’s aging airports have long been starved of investment. (Stringer/brazil/Reuters)
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff gestures during the launching ceremony of an investment plan at airports, in Brasilia Dec. 20, 2012. While air travel has expanded rapidly in Brazil – an area larger than the 48 contiguous U.S. states – the country’s aging airports have long been starved of investment. (Stringer/brazil/Reuters)

Brazil seeks private investors in key airports Add to ...

Brazil unveiled a $9-billion plan to overhaul two of its international airports and upgrade others on Thursday as it rushes to accommodate surging air traffic in time for the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

The plan to modernize Rio de Janeiro’s Galeao airport, the country’s second largest, and Belo Horizonte’s Confins airport, should attract 11.4-billion reais ($5.48-billion U.S.) in bids from private companies, the civil aviation authority said.

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Rio de Janeiro, whose creaking international airport struggles to serve rising numbers of tourists and business visitors, is one of 12 Brazilian cities fielding World Cup matches in 2014 and will host the Summer Olympics two years later.

Air travel has expanded rapidly in Brazil over the past decade of booming economic growth and the rise in middle class incomes, overcrowding the country’s aging airports, which have long been starved of investment.

Private companies that win operating licenses to be auctioned in September will have control over the two airports, and state airport management company Infraero will have a minority 49-per-cent stake, the same arrangement used in concessions auctioned in February for the airports of Brasilia, Campinas and Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos, Brazil’s largest.

Seeking to draw more experienced airport operators, the Brazilian government is requiring that bidders for the two new concessions have experience managing airports with at least 35 million passengers a year. The operator must also take a minimum 25-per-cent stake in the winning consortium.

The government also said it would invest 7.3-billion reais to upgrade smaller regional airports and build 17 new ones to increase access to air travel in remote parts of Brazil.

The plan is part of President Dilma Rousseff’s push to attract private investment to help upgrade Brazil’s deficient transport infrastructure, from roads and railways to airports and seaports, that has made it a costly place to do business.

Ms. Rousseff rebuffed criticism that Brazil, where economic growth has stalled, is no longer a good place to invest. “We are improving the business environment in Brazil, triggering a huge advance in investment in productivity,” she said after the airport announcement.

Brazil’s economy grew just 0.6 per cent in the third quarter. Ms. Rousseff pointed to lower interest rates, a weaker currency and her goal of lowering the country’s tax burden as factors that will bring about a solid recovery in 2013.

Ms. Rousseff said a country the size of Brazil needs better internal air travel facilities and that improving these links would require public-private partnerships.

“With the initiatives we are taking, we will enable regional aviation in our country that otherwise would not be viable,” she said.

Brazil is larger than the 48 contiguous U.S. states, a country with much more developed road and rail networks. Some communities in Brazil, including many in its Amazon north, can only practically be reached by airplane.

The government will invest $1.7-billion reais in 67 airports in northern Brazil, which includes the Amazon basin, and another $2.1-billion reais in 64 airports in the northeast region, which has been one of the fastest-growing parts of Brazil in recent years but is a three-hour flight from the main economic hubs in the south of the country.

After a decade of brisk economic growth, passenger traffic more than doubled in 10 years, according to government figures, making Brazil one of the most promising aviation markets in the world. Some analysts say the volume of airline passengers could double again by 2030.

While increasing air traffic fuelled heady growth for a crop of ambitious new airlines such as Gol and Azul, many carriers now complain more growth is not possible without significant airport expansion.

Delays at roads, ports, factories, as well as airports, have also raised production and distribution costs and contributed to the drag that poor infrastructure has had on the once-booming Brazilian economy.

Ms. Rousseff’s decision to tackle the problem with private investment is a reversal of the long-standing policy of her Workers’ Party and of her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula opposed efforts during his two terms to allow private partners to manage Brazilian airports.

The government earlier this month launched a $26-billion public-private drive to modernize sea ports. In August it announced a plan to lure up to $133-billion reais in private investment for road and rail projects.

Ms. Rousseff’s courting of private capital comes as some investors have begun to criticize the government’s growing role in the economy.

A senior analyst for Fitch Ratings warned in September that Brazil’s aggressive negotiation of energy rate cuts could spook foreign investors, for example, sapping appetite for concessions in other sectors.

Changes to the country’s electricity concession contracts have caused the shares of many utilities to plunge.

Ms. Rousseff, however, brushed off the criticism on Thursday.

“I find it very weird when people say we’re changing the rules of the game,” she said in a speech following the investment announcement. “This is not true, because we want an environment of stable contracts.”

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