The media are full of reports on the terrible crash of a TAM Airlines A320 at Congonhas Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Total casualties are believed to be about 200, including 170 passengers filling the flight from Porto Alegre (a city of about 5 million) to São Paulo, one of the largest cities in the world, with 11 million living within the city limits and 29 million estimated in the greater metropolitan area, dwarfing New York City.
The causes of the crash are already being studied, but the recent repaving of the runway may have played a role in causing the airplane to run past the end and hit a gasoline station, which burst into flames, aggravating the damage. Although air travel remains one of the safest ways to travel, airplanes do occasionally overshoot the ends of shorter runways, particularly when rain, snow, or ice aggravate conditions. Runway overshoots have happened at Chicago Midway and Burbank Airports, as well as Toronto's Pearson Airport and various overseas locations. But the death toll in this case is horrendous due to the intense urbanization.
TAM Airlines is generally quite well-respected, and has been expanding rapidly internationally. This is not a moment to point fingers, but rather to offer condolences to those who have lost loved ones, friends and colleagues.
Congonhas Airport is in a heavily urbanized zone, but is the busiest airport in South America. Its one runway is not long enough to handle intercontinental traffic, so Guarulhos Airport, somewhat further from the heart of the city, stands as the busiest international airport in South America. This remarkable YouTube video shows a cockpit view of landing at Congonhas over the tops of skyscrapers, a hair-raising exercise to me, but a routine matter for Brazilian commercial pilots.