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Venezuela becoming pariah for airlines
[CARACAS] Jeanne Costes was stranded in Caracas for nearly a week, one of thousands of people affected by a withdrawal of foreign airlines balking at Venezuela's unrest and collapsing economy.
The 26-year-old French tourist residing in Peru had flown in from Paris with a connecting flight booked to Bogota. But her airline was Colombia's Avianca, which suspended its Venezuela flights just as she arrived in Caracas.
Her ordeal ended early this month, when she was put on another airline, but only after nights spent in a hotel hearing the clashes of protesters and security forces in demonstrations that have left nearly 130 people dead in the past four months.
"We want to sue Air France (which provided the Paris-Caracas leg) and Avianca, because they knew very well what was going to happen once we were here," Ms Costes told AFP.
The pullout of foreign airlines began in 2014, when Venezuela's economy began to slide in tandem with declining prices for oil - the country's all-important export.
Since then, the country has seen a drought of US dollars, hard currency which the government has been monopolizing since 2003 with currency controls.
As a result, the airlines have a massive pile of US$3.8 billion owed to them but stuck in Venezuela, according to the International Air Transport Association.
With no way of repatriating their income, most airlines last year stopped accepting Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, for ticket purchases, demanding only dollars, an industry source said.
Others have simply left.
Between 2014 and 2015, Air Canada, Aeromexico, Alitalia, LAN from Chile, Brazil's TAM and Gol, and Tiara from Aruba ceased services.
Last year, Dynamic from the US and Germany's Lufthansa followed suit.
This year has seen Avianca, Delta and United abandon Venezuela. Aerolineas Argentinas' flights became sporadic from August 9, when the airline started deciding week-to-week whether to fly to Caracas.
Many of the airlines pulled out or pulled back "because the route isn't profitable enough to justify the risks," Humberto Figuera, president of the Venezuelan Airlines Association, told AFP.
A source in the sector said it was possible Avianca left because Venezuela-Colombia political ties had deteriorated after Bogota accused Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of establishing a "dictatorship." A dozen foreign airlines are still operating in the country, but some have reduced their services, like American Airlines, TAP from Portugal, Air France and Spain's Iberia.
Pilots with Spain's Air Europa have asked their airline to stop putting them up overnight in Caracas because of safety issues.
Iberia is already parking crews overnight in the Dominican Republic for the same reason, Mr Figuera said.
The brazen August 8 shooting death of a Venezuelan who was checking in at Caracas's airport underlined the dangers in the country, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In 2016, an Egyptian was murdered by muggers in front of the terminal.
The developments mean the number of available seats out of Venezuela have fallen by a third since 2013, and are now very pricey to buy - more than double the cost of comparable ones in nearby countries.
Panamanian company Copa remains the main airline carrying on almost as usual. Its outward flights from Caracas are overbooked weeks in advance, in all classes, but its inbound ones are half-empty.
Mr Figuera said that, despite the industry wariness, no problems had been reported with Venezuela's air control, runway conditions or aircraft fuel supplies.
However, tariffs for using the country's airports or flying through its airspace were significantly higher than in other countries in the region, he said.
"The current situation is grim, and may become worse unless there is a change in Venezuela's leadership," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst heading the Atmosphere Research Group.
"Venezuela is an unstable country right now. No airline CEO will put her or his colleagues' lives at risk, or risk having aircraft worth tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of dollars caught up in a country that could possibly collapse." Andrew Charlton, of the Swiss-based Aviation Advocacy consulting firm, stressed that "airlines like stability and safety" and the situation in Venezuela "is not good."
Yet for Ms Costes, the stranded French passenger, the troubles she faced did little to lessen her desire to get to know Venezuela.
"I want to come back one day, when everything is over," she said.