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Intro: With Venezuela’s presidential election coming up Sunday, we continue our coverage of how that election could affect that important South American country. Today, Steven Bodzin looks at what the elections might mean for the country’s troubled air travel industry.
South American air travel has generally gotten much better in the last 20 years. But there is one big exception.
Venezuela used to be the region’s great airline hub. It had a reliable fuel supply and a population obsessed with foreign travel. Caracas is also the major South American city that’s closest to Europe and the US.
But today, Venezuelan air travel is falling apart. The government doesn’t release statistics, but the non-governmental Humboldt Rescue Organisation has recorded 344 air incidents so far this year, more than three times as many as were recorded in all of 2009.
Here’s Beth Kohn, a travel writer who regularly visits the country.
KOHN: I had two interesting experiences with air travel last time I was there. I had one domestic flight where they made us get on and off the plane three times because of the rain. And each time we were on the plane for about five minutes before they offloaded us. And my second experience was with a domestic airline, trying to fly to the United States, that was canceled. But it was canceled, all the flights had been canceled for about two days, so it was a mob scene in the airport with the National Guard being called out.
ME: How does that compare to other countries that you travel to in the developing world?
NARR: There are many causes for the decline, but many people in the industry put much of the blame on the government of President Hugo Chávez. In particular, they blame exchange controls, which makes it harder to get spare parts while giving businessmen an incentive to buy the cheapest possible planes for their airlines.
AMBI1 UP & UNDER (airport parking lot sound)
Ramon Gomez is a pilot with 43 years experience, most of it in Venezuela. He says the country’s attempt to limit exchange with foreign currencies have made life difficult for every airline.
When you need the part and you need the operational money to run the airline, it is hard to find the dollars to cover that. So that brings a lot of problems, especially with maintenance. So a majority of problems in the regular operation of airline right now in Venezuela is, are the lack of um, dollars and another thing that doesn’t help is that the fleet, the Venezuelan fleet is really really old. I would say it is the oldest in the whole Latin American area, around 30 years.
There are policies that could change quickly if the government changes. I spoke to an aviation executive who didn’t want to speak on tape so as not to offend his colleagues. He said the biggest problem in the industry is that the armed forces provide most of the air traffic controllers and some pilots and even industry regulators, such as the head of the civil aviation institute. He said they are trained to follow orders, while safe air travel requires an independent labour force. If Capriles wins, that may be up for a change.
Candidate Capriles has also pledged to phase out exchange controls, though he hasn’t said how — or how quickly.
The one bright spot in Venezuela’s air industry may be general aviation. Since many companies and multi-millionaires avoid commercial travel, the private jet industry is booming. That may offer a kernel from which a new Venezuelan air industry is born.