Venezuela Aviation Authority Plays Hardball With U.S. FAA

Venezuela has announced its intention to cut back flights from US airlines, in response to a decade old US classification which limits Venezuelan flights into the States. American Airlines supports Venezuela’s reclassification.

Caracas, Venezuela March 9, 2006—“Welcome to AeroMéxico,” the flight attendant greets passengers heading onto a flight from Atlanta to Mexico City.

“That’s funny,” some of them must be thinking. “I could have sworn I bought my ticket from Continental.”

Arrangements that allow airlines to sell tickets to each other’s flights as if they were their own, known as code-sharing agreements, are now a common and increasingly important business arrangement for airlines. Under the accords, passengers buying a ticket to Continental, for example, can find themselves on any flight of Continental’s partners.

Such agreements are subject to government approval, which is generally received when countries have been certified to meet International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) standards. However, countries that are not found to meet these standards are ineligible to take part in these accords. Among other drawbacks is a prohibition to increase flights to the United States until IASA standards are met, and a mandate that airlines rent aircraft from a country that’s received a category 1 rating.

The revocation of Venezuela’s category 1 rating in 1995 is at the center of a recent tiff between Caracas and Washington. Venezuela’s aviation authority claims this decade old categorization is unfair and that improvements to its airlines over the years have been ignored. Indeed, according to Les Dorr, a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Venezuela hasn’t been reassessed in over a decade. But reassessments are generally only preformed for category 2 countries when the FAA is confident they will pass.

So, Venezuela has taken a hard-line stance: If the US doesn’t change its status by the end of the month, it will sharply decrease the number of flights allowed by US carriers into the country. This was a concession from a February 24 statement, which would have cut flights by March 1.

The list of countries that don’t meet IASA standards is certainly not a political one. Not only Venezuela, but Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Paraguay—all of which enjoy far more cordial relations with the US than Caracas—are on the list. But as with seemingly all dealings between the US and Venezuela, it has become politicized. The ultimatum came just a week after Condoleezza Rice announced that the US was striving to create a “united front” against Venezuela, and left State Department officials considering options for an “appropriate response.”  

Venezuela’s sentiments that the US has been treating it unfairly have been reinforced by its placement (alongside only Burma) on the 2005 list of countries decertified as allies in the US’s war on drugs, despite an increase in drug confiscations; and as one of a handful of countries not doing enough to fight human trafficking. In both cases, the country faces sanctions.

But as Venezuela moves to pay off its loans to International Financial Institutions, the implemented sanctions—unrelated to trade—have little effect on the country. The airplane ban, by contrast, seems to be making an impact. Or, at least, with three major carriers actively supporting the action, Venezuelan airlines are eagerly awaiting to expand service to the US.

Venezuela’s category one status was originally revoked, according to the Venezuelan government newswire Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias, because the country lacked a civil aviation law, resources for the bodies responsible for exercising control duties and operational security surveillance, and properly trained personnel. However, the news agency says, last July Venezuela enacted the new Law of Civil Aeronautics, and the civil aviation authorities have carried out changes to improve the infrastructure, security, and training of aviation personnel. In 2004, the International Civil Aviation Organization said that Venezuela fulfilled 89 percent of the international norms and requirements to operate commercially in foreign markets, including the United States.

FAA spokesperson Dorr explained Venezuela’s ongoing category 2 status. “Over the years we’ve worked with Venezuela extensively to try to help them out, as we do with other category 2 countries, and it really just never came together,” he said.

But Venezuela’s hard-line stance may payoff. Dorr, and State Department spokesperson Amanda Rogers-Harper, said that talks are now in place to look into the possibility of reassessing Venezuela’s status in the coming months, after the 10 year gap. Neither could say if these talks began before or after Venezuela had threatened to cut back flights by US airlines.

Venezuela has received at least one vote of confidence on the matter. Peter Dolara, Vice President of American Airlines for the Caribbean, South America and Mexico told Venezuelan Daily El Nacional, “We believe that the FAA, when it has the chance to do an audit, will be pleasantly surprised with what they find…today Maiquetía [Venzuela’s main international airport] is one of the best run airports in the world.”