Landing on the runway in Sao Paulo is like landing on an aircraft carrier, say pilots familiar with Brazils busiest airport.

Long criticized as too short for modern jets, the 6,365-foot landing strip at Congonhas airport leaped into the headlines again yesterday when an Airbus 320 skidded in wet weather, crashed into a gas station and adjacent building, and exploded.

An estimated 200 people, including 15 on the ground, died in Brazils worst airline disaster.

The runway has long been the source of controversy.

Just five months ago, a Brazilian federal court banned takeoffs and landings of three types of large jets because of safety concerns. The ban was short-lived, removed by an appeals court that said it would cause severe economic hardship to the airport.

In the wake of the crash, plus cascading complaints from pilots, the courts could become involved again.

Pilots say that are told to touch down on the first 1,000 feet of runway but to abort their landings if they overshoot that landing zone.

That doesnt always happen: In 1996, another TAM airlines jet skidded off the Congonhas runway and down a street before exploding in a fireball that killed 99, including three on the ground.

And a pair of planes skidded off the runway Monday, just one day before the latest crash, but no one was hurt.

The crash of the TAM flight from Porto Alegre comes less than a year after two craft collided in midair over the Amazon rainforest, killing 154. That crash, between a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 and an executive jet last September, had been Brazils worst before Tuesday.

Air safety has long been an issue in Brazil, where airports and airlines are straining to cope with a surge in passengers and flights. Controllers concerned about understaffing, antiquated equipment, and safety conditions have caused numerous strikes and slowdowns that make delays and cancellations common.

The deteriorating air traffic system in Brazil could be a harbinger of things to come in the United States, where many of the same issues exist.

Pilots detest the 7,000-foot runway at New Yorks LaGuardia, which they say is too short for wet-weather landings. Although it is 700 feet longer than the runway in Sao Paulo, the LaGuardia runway encounters more bad weather, including snowy, icy, or rainy conditions.

Separate crashes of USAir flights in September 1989 and March 1992 killed a total of 13 people and injured 98 when planes skidded off wet runways into Browery Bay. Numerous other skidding incidents have also occurred at LaGuardia.

Washington's Reagan National and Boston's Logan Airports are similarly treacherous, pilots say, plagued by short runways, heavy traffic and nearby high rises.