Venezuela strikes back, cuts flights by US airlines

Saturday, September 13, 2008, 18:50 by Aviation Correspondent

Venezuela is cutting the number of flights it will allow United States-based airlines to operate to and from the country.

Venezuela angered by US questions on airport security

Venezuela angered by US questions on airport security

The National Civil Aviation Institute of Venezuela, the country’s aviation agency, has informed American Airlines, Continental Airlines and Delta Air Lines that the number of their flights to Venezuela will be cut from September 28, 2008.

This move by Venezuela is an apparent retaliation for the government of the United States questioning the state of security at Venezuelan airports.

On September 8, 2008, the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had issued an advisory saying that it could not verify that Venezuela’s airport security procedures are adequate because TSA’s inspectors have been denied access to Venezuelan airports.

Officials of the TSA had said that Venezuela’s refusal to grant US inspectors access to assess security at Venezuelan airports violates a condition that every other country has complied with since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The US stand had attracted prompt and pointed criticism from Venezuelan officials.

Jose Martinez Bravo, president of Venezuela’s National Civil Aviation Institute, had accused the US officials of seeking “to embarrass Venezuela” with the travel advisory, the newspaper El Universal said, citing a copy of the letter sent by Venezuela to the three US-based airlines.

Martinez described the US advisory as “a line of slander,” but did not deny the fact that officials of the US Transportation Security Administration have been prevented from inspecting Venezuelan airports. However, he insisted that “TSA officials have no jurisdiction in Venezuela” and that “Venezuela’s airport security meets international standards.”

The three United-States based carriers – American Airlines, the world’s largest airline and headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas; Continental Airlines, based in Houston, Texas; and Delta Air Lines, based and headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia – together operate over 70 flights a week, carrying passengers between Caracas, Venezuela’s capital city, and US cities like Miami, Atlanta and Houston.

Any reduction in flights between the United States and Venezuela is likely to affect in a big way Venezuelans who regularly travel on vacation to the United States, especially to Florida, which is home to a large Venezuelan expatriate community.

Reports in the Venezuelan media said Martinez has informed the three United States-based carriers that there is an “imbalance” in the number of US-Venezuela flights which favours US carriers and that Venezuela’s National Civil Aviation Institute is ordering US airlines to operate fewer flights. The three US carriers, according to these reports, operate about 80% of flights between US cities and Caracas.

Venezuela’s drastic decision is likely to heighten tensions between Venezuela’s socialist government headed by President Hugo Chavez and the George Bush administration, according to political observers.

Though the two countries often clash over a number of issues, including drugs, free trade and oil prices, Venezuela still remains one of the leading suppliers of oil to the US.

A spokesman for Delta Air Lines was quoted as reacting to Venezuela’s decision: “This is an issue between the United States government and the Venezuelan government. We are hopeful that this will be resolved and the two sides can reach a solution quickly.”

An official of American Airlines said in Miami, Florida, that the Venezuelan authorities had not yet specified the flights they intended to cut.