Airlines are continuing to pull out of Venezuela, and this time it’s not just about trapped cash but a whole series of grievances including staff held up at gun point, luggage theft, poor runway maintenance and low quality jet fuel.
United Airlines, Avianca and Delta Air Lines have either stopped flying to Venezuela or said they would leave the country, while three others cancelled flights on specific days as the nation descends into chaos. Colombia’s pilots’ association says its members who have flown to Venezuela have had to deal with contaminated fuel and hours-long delays as the National Guard pulls suitcases off flights to loot them. This week, videos showed an apparent assassination of a man at the check-in desk of a local airline at the airport.
“Everything that’s part of the airport’s infrastructure started to get degraded,” Julian Pinzon, the head of security and technical issues at Colombian pilot association Acdac, said. “We started seeing problems in the runway, problems in the aircraft taxiway, problems with the airport’s electricity supply, in the fuel distribution trucks.”
The current round of carrier defections comes after routes had stabilised from the previous exodus triggered by the government’s halt of dollar payments, and leaves Venezuelans increasingly cut off from the rest of the world. A flight to Miami in coach class can cost about $1,000, in a country where the monthly minimum wage is about $20 at the black market rate.
The nation’s social and economic implosion has turned tasks as simple as busing flight crew to hotels into logistical challenges. Staff who once stayed overnight in Caracas, which is about a 45-minute drive away, took to sleeping in hotels near the airport to avoid the bandit-ridden highway. Even then, they’d get attacked, minutes outside the airport perimeter. Some carriers took to flying crew to spend the night in neighbouring countries.
Avianca hired bodyguards after shots were fired during a robbery of a bus carrying its crew. Traffic in and out of Caracas dropped 40 percent in 2014 after cash piled up from local sales that couldn’t be repatriated — there’s still $3.8 billion that never made it out, according to international airline association IATA. The airlines that stuck it out were able to pay off local costs and fuel with bolivars, until Venezuela changed that rule, requiring payment in dollars.
Flights have found Venezuelan jet fuel to be contaminated due to poor conditions in distribution trucks and storage tanks, according to the Acdac.