Buses across jungle borders, boats through Caribbean waters and private flights from small airfields have become a new norm for departing Venezuela as a multibillion-dollar pay dispute turns the country into something of a “no-fly” zone.
Major international airlines have slashed seat availability by half since last year, pulling many routes entirely in a spat with Venezuela’s socialist government about the repatriation of US$3.6 billion in ticket revenue.
The dwindling supply has sent prices spiraling for available seats and led to a surge of more inventive travel itineraries via circuitous routes and other means.
“I’ve never flown private, but I had to because you just can’t get a normal flight,” Orinda Pamfil, 23, said, at the small, exclusive Charallave airport in hills outside Caracas.
Unable to find a commercial ticket to the US, she was lucky to be traveling to Houston, Texas, in a spare seat on a small plane owned by a friend of a friend.
“It’s impossible for normal Venezuelans to travel,” she said, clutching designer luggage.
Hiring a seven-seat private plane, such as a Learjet 55, costs upwards of US$2,500 per hour, private pilot Carlos da Silva said. Used to flying super-wealthy clients, he is now receiving calls from groups of middle-class Venezuelans looking to share costs.
“There’s been a surge in demand because people are desperate,” said another pilot, Nicolas Veloz, who estimated demand was up at least 20 percent in recent months.
“They have business, school, health issues abroad. Sometimes people just have to get out in an emergency,” he said.
Venezuelans unable to afford private planes or find a rare seat on a commercial flight are taking more laborious trips across land and sea.
On a recent morning at Caracas’ tiny Rutas de America bus terminal, 39-year-old Yane Gonzalez was about to take a four-day trip across the Andes via Colombia to the Peruvian capital, Lima, thousands of kilometers away.
“Of course I’d rather fly,” said Gonzalez, who was giving up her work selling snacks at a kiosk in Caracas to begin a new life in Peru. “But we go to the airline and they have no seats.”
The airline problem, the latest manifestation of multiple strains across the Venezuelan economy, derives from a government requirement that domestic ticket sales be in local currency.
Twenty-four airlines have built up the equivalent of US$3.6 billion in bolivars, but are unable to convert that money into hard currency, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This is due to delays in authorizations from the government which, for more than a decade, has operated strict foreign exchange controls.
“The country unfortunately is disconnecting from the world economy and runs the risk of deeper isolation,” said Jason Sinclair, an IATA spokesman. “It simply is not sustainable for the airlines to fly to a country where they cannot be paid.”
Negotiations are under way and about a third of the airlines have reached agreements in principle, but the terms are incomplete and “lack any form of guarantees,” Sinclair said.
International airlines have cut seat availability in and out of Venezuela by 49 percent on last year, the IATA said.
Major airlines including Air Canada and Alitalia earlier this year suspended all flights, citing safety concerns and difficulty in repatriating revenue.
Alitalia began flying again earlier this month, but with limited service.
A plethora of others, including American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines, slashed most, but not all flights earlier this year. European airlines like Lufthansa and Iberia have also cut routes.
Caracas was American Airlines’ first destination in South America more than a quarter-century ago, but the carrier cut almost 80 percent of its weekly flights to Venezuela in June.
The airline said it is owed US$791 million. It still runs 10 weekly flights to Venezuela from Miami, but these can now only be paid for abroad in hard currency.
A Miami to Caracas return on American Airlines — a six-hour flight — for next month is listed at US$2,000. A comparable flight from Miami to Bogota, in neighboring Colombia, is about US$750.
Though his ministers are in discussions with the airlines, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has cast the problem as part of an “economic war” against him by capitalist foes and has threatened airlines that pull out with permanent expulsion.
“Whoever leaves Venezuela in the midst of this economic war doesn’t return... because Venezuela must be respected,” Maduro said.
Venezuela’s domestic carriers are also struggling because they find it hard to obtain dollars to import parts for maintenance.
“There are aircraft just sitting on the tarmac because they don’t have parts,” pilot Veloz said.
Some travelers are finding friends or companies with boats to take them to the nearby Caribbean islands such as Aruba, Curacao and Trinidad where onward flight availability to popular destinations like New York or Miami is much easier.
Many travel agents are struggling to make a living. They protested earlier this year outside the tourism ministry and some have given up their work.
Others are up for the challenge.
“If you’re young, rich and agile, you’ll find a way to get out,” travel agent Doris Gaal said. “But it’s not going to be easy.”
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