Friday, July 28, 2017

Avianca Halts Flights From Venezuela: Colombia-based carrier suspends service amid deadly civil unrest in Caracas

The Wall Street Journal
By Kejal Vyas
July 28, 2017 5:24 p.m. ET

BOGOTÁ—Frequent airport power outages, rampant luggage theft and fears of having their planes impounded led Avianca Holdings SA to abruptly withdraw from Venezuela this week, people familiar with company’s decision said Friday.

The operational difficulties faced by the Colombia-based carrier—one of Latin America’s largest—add to a litany of security and financial woes that have pushed around 10 international airlines in recent years to halt services to Caracas. The latest airline’s decision further disconnects a nation mired in deadly civil unrest as countries around the region increase pressure on its authoritarian government.

“Every day we’re more and more isolated,” said travel agent Nelly Corral, frustrated that prices for tickets to the U.S. with the few remaining carriers servicing Venezuela—among them Panama’s Copa Holdings SA —have nearly quadrupled since Avianca’s departure Thursday. “It’s total chaos,” she said.

An internal company memo seen by The Wall Street Journal said Avianca faced chronic problems with power outages that limit the use of Simón Bolívar International Airport’s runway as well as “poor-quality fuel” and inadequate jet refueling equipment. The company several months ago had stopped refueling in Venezuela or leaving aircraft there overnight, a person familiar with the company’s operations said, citing security risks.

The memo also noted concerns over airport technicians with expired licenses that are needed to handle plane equipment. Flights, it said, are often delayed for hours due to arbitrary inspections by the Venezuelan National Guard, which maintains security there.

“This is reflected in the highest level of theft and irregular intervention into travelers’ luggage,” the memo said, adding that Avianca’s crew has also been subjected to robbery and assault on a number of occasions in the crime-ridden capital.

A spokeswoman for Venezuela’s aviation authority couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The suspension by Avianca, which according to FlightGlobal had the second-highest seat capacity among international carriers flying to Venezuela, sent the company scrambling to accommodate or reimburse thousands of passengers who had bought tickets through mid-August, when the company had initially planned to stop flights before accelerating its pullout.

The lack of flights has also left Venezuelans stranded abroad and disrupted exit plans for the many looking to flee the country’s collapsing economy and street violence fueled by daily demonstrations against President Nicolás Maduro’s autocratic rule.

Other carriers are also eyeing the exit. Delta Air Lines this week notified Venezuelan travel agencies that they would stop their once-weekly flight to the country on Sept. 16. The company didn’t return calls seeking comment.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department said it had ordered the evacuation of family members of embassy workers ahead of a vote organized by Mr. Maduro for Sunday to redraw the country’s constitution. The controversial measure has heightened the risk of violent clashes in the polarized nation and has drawn swift condemnation from human-rights organizations and governments around the region. Mexico and Colombia this week followed the Trump administration’s move to blacklist 13 Venezuelan government officials accused of corruption and rights abuses.

Immigration authorities in Colombia and Peru on Friday announced plans to review visa statuses for hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans in their countries to allow for longer stays on humanitarian grounds.

“The moment I saw the U.S. workers and the airlines leaving, that’s when I really started worrying that it may be too late to get out,” said 31-year-old Caracas political consultant Marcela Zaro who lost tickets for a planned trip to the U.S.

Rigid currency controls in Venezuela haven’t only made it hard for individuals like Ms. Zaro to access dollars to travel, but they have also prevented airlines from repatriating $3.8 billion in ticket sale revenues they have trapped in Venezuela, according to the International Air Transport Association. The industry group says carriers are further squeezed because Venezuela’s government forces them to pay for jet fuel in dollars, leaving them with few ways to spend the holdings they have locked in the local bolivar currency, whose value is in free fall.

“It’s a tragedy what’s happening in Venezuela,” said IATA spokesman Jason Sinclair. “Global economies need aviation and connectivity to run. If you disconnect, that hurts everyone.”

Ms. Zaro and her husband had saved up for three years to fly to New York in September to attend a Bruno Mars concert until their Avianca flight was canceled. “The trip was supposed to be oxygen for us,” she said, now unsure how she will make it.

“We still have hope,” she said. “If I have to get there by bus, I don’t care. I’m going to get there.”

—Anatoly Kurmanaev in Caracas contributed to this article.

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