By Caribbean News Now contributor
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Airlines are suspending flights to Venezuela not because of the unpaid $4 billion owed to them collectively by the government but because of the World Cup in Brazil, the country’s president said on Thursday.
President Nicolás Maduro. Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr
"Some of these European airlines have reprogrammed flights until the World Cup is over and they're re-routing flights to Brazil, given the large number of people round the world who want to enjoy the best World Cup we'll see,” President Nicolás Maduro said on Thursday.
Italian airline Alitalia recently announced that it is suspending all flights to Venezuela "due to the ongoing critical currency situation” in the country," which is "no longer economically sustainable."
The decision by Alitalia follows a similar suspension in late March of all flights to Venezuela by Air Canada and a number of regional airlines have reduced the frequency of flights due to delays in repatriating revenue under local currency controls. Colombia's Avianca has reduced itineraries by more than two-thirds. Other airlines represented by the International Air Transport Association are considering suspending all flights to Venezuela.
In March, the Curacao government was called on to bail out local airline Insel Air after it found itself in a dire financial situation as a result of the nonpayment of some $80 million owed to the airline by Venezuela.
Venezuela currently owes airlines a total of some $4 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), because the carriers have to sell tickets in the local bolivar currency but cannot get approval to repatriate the revenue.
However, Maduro, the socialist successor to the late Hugo Chavez, has dismissed this as a factor.
"Some of these announcements are manipulated," he said on Thursday.
In addressing the issue in late March, Maduro said, "Airlines have no excuse to reduce flights to Venezuela. I will take severe measures against any airline that does so. If an airline chooses to leave the country, it won't come back as long as we're the government. They will have to overthrow us. They won't return. I'm telling this to the owners of international airlines."
Also in March, Venezuela undertook to permit the repatriation of the billions of dollars owed to carriers at fair exchange rates but the government has so far reneged on this commitment.
Throughout the month of April, the Venezuelan government made various offers to release some of the airlines’ funds, but at inferior exchange rates or with arbitrary discounts.
“The situation is unacceptable. In March the Venezuelan government promised airlines that it would release their money for repatriation at fair exchange rates. Since then there has been very little progress. Airlines are committed to serving the Venezuelan market but they cannot sustain operations indefinitely if they can’t get paid,” said Tony Tyler, director general and CEO of IATA.
IATA has continued its call for the immediate release of the blocked funds for repatriation at the exchange rates in place at the time the funds were generated. In most cases this was 6.3 Bolivars to the US dollar.
Venezuelans wishing to fly abroad are now finding it increasingly hard to purchase tickets due to reduced numbers on sale and sky-rocketing prices.
Meanwhile, Maduro announced plans to "strengthen" state airline Conviasa to cover the routes of international airlines in the medium term. The first route will be Venezuela-Italy, with Conviasa's new Airbus. Conviasa is also to operate flights to Colombia and Ecuador.
In April 2012, Conviasa was banned from flying to countries in the European Union because of safety concerns. The EU said that Conviasa failed to show it had taken adequate steps to prevent future accidents.
However, the ban was lifted in July 2013 after Conviasa resolved “serious safety deficiencies.”