I was waiting for my luggage at Bogotá’s El Dorado airport when I was called on the PA to the Avianca counter. An extremely polite employee informed me that my suitcase never actually left Caracas and that it would be delivered the next day to my hotel.

Ugh, evil airlines screwing over the little guy, amiright?

Just then, I looked around and realized that none of the passengers who’d flown from Caracas had their bags. This had, in fact, nothing to do with Avianca. The National Guard (in charge of security at Maiquetía Airport) didn’t let the Avianca staff load any luggage onto the plane, as the Avianca employee quickly confirmed.

This delay caused by GNB mafia practices probably cost Avianca a lot of money: they were forced to deliver hundreds of bags all over the world.

That’s one reason I wasn’t surprised when Avianca and Delta Airlines announced, almost in unison, that they would cease operations in Venezuela, the latest in a string of international airlines that have left during the past four years. Of the twenty three airlines that operated in the country in 2013, just eight remain.

What happened?

Dollar trouble

The first explanation is the simplest: money. The airline business in Venezuela has always been tied to oil booms. At the dawn of the Cadivi era, airlines made a killing charging tickets in bolivars and exchanging them into greenbacks at a ridiculously low exchange rate. But that’s because the state was flush with petrodollars, and happy to let them carry off the trade.

Drug smugglers, in complicity with the National Guard, use Air France’s Caracas-Paris flights to ship cocaine, leading to the biggest cocaine seizure in France’s history.

That particular distortionfest ended when oil prices crashed and the government realised that it wasn’t wise to exchange a hundred-bolivar bill for ten bucks just to subsidize international travel for the wealthy. When the dollars stopped flowing, the airlines headed for the exits. Some started selling tickets in foreign currency only, many others just left. The ones that remained slashed capacity, flying smaller planes less often.

But it’s not just about money, it’s about the overall decay in the country. United Airlines, which also ceased operations, had to include a layover in Aruba for their Houston-Caracas flight to change flight crews just to make sure that no one from the crew had to stay overnight in Venezuela after they had repeatedly been victims of crime.

An Iberia crew had to get to the airport in a boat after a bridge in Vargas state connecting their hotel to the airport collapsed recently.

Drug smugglers, in complicity with the National Guard, use Air France’s Caracas-Paris flights to ship cocaine, leading to the biggest cocaine seizure in France’s history.

Avianca staff were also victims of crime. The company suffered constant luggage theft and faced expropriation threats of assets for refusing to transport tear gas from Brazil.

You get the idea: few airlines want to fly to an airport located in a lawless country run by drug traffickers in military uniforms.

Days ago, the picture at the top of this post went viral. It shows the international terminal at Maiquetía Airport, early in the morning, completely bereft of planes. It captures, for many, the bankruptcy and isolation Venezuela faces, a country so destitute that most people who want to leave, can’t afford the tickets and where airlines won’t flight because it’s too dangerous for their employees.

Es lo que hay.

23 COMMENTS

  1. American, Caribbean Airlines, Copa, Iberia (maybe not after this week), Air France, Tap, Air Europa and another one that I don’t remember the name…

  2. I assume the grand hotel they were building connected to the international terminal still sits as an empty shell. That place could have been a money-maker, but like so many socialist schemes,well, you know.

  3. Yes…who is left??…copa??….Santa barbara…..do not fly SB…plane is junk………i say prayer everytime i fly them.
    Look for flights to panama to CCS……194$ us in…..700Us out….stupid……but you must pay to leave……..IF you can afford

  4. “That particular distortionfest ended when oil prices crashed and the government realised that it wasn’t wise to exchange a hundred-bolivar bill for ten bucks just to subsidize international travel for the wealthy”

    This is a bit inaccurate. Airlines started to leave at the beginning of 2014. Dollars where running low already then, even though the barrel of oil was at 100$. The price of oil only started to collapse in the last quarter of 2014, and of course, it accelerated the stampede of airlines, but the stampede started long before.

  5. I actually thought Avianca would stick it out until the bitter end. The lack of competition means you can still make nice profits if you don’t have to leave crews overnight and can charge fares in hard currency. Anecdotically, Copa is doing quiite well here.

    My bet for the next airline to throw in the towel is Air France. They used to offer the smoothest connection to our colonial masters in PEK, but now Turkish can compete for that traffic. They are also better used to dealing with whackadoodle authoritarian regimes.

  6. My wife, (expat) who used to travel to Caracas twice each year to visit her family, has taken to flying her relatives out of Venezuela instead of her flying in. As of 2015, we have been able to sponsor 15 of her relatives here in the United States, so these flights are essentially one way tickets.

    The problems we find in Maiquetía are legion. I no longer go, because “The Gringo” stands out like a sore thumb. The method of operation is always the same in customs. They see my passport, my papers, and… “I am sorry Mr. Guapo… there is a BIG PROBLEM with your papers.” This is where I am separated from my wife (my Spanish is only passable) and The Gringo gets the the standard “Maiquetía Shakedown”. “Why are you bringing prohibited items into Venezuela? Your documents don’t match. Do you know what the penalty is? This is serious. I am going to have to contact the Lord High Supervisor about this!” Naturally, they are my “friends” and they can cut me some slack… for a price. US dollars please. Not Bolivars.

    Luggage? What luggage! The last time my wife flew into Maiquetía, her luggage got “lost” somewhere between the plane and the carousel. Before that, her 50lbs of luggage weighed in at about 15lbs after it was pilfered of all the new clothing for las sobrinas. (Apparently, luggage handlers have a thing for Victorias Secret undergarments and womens shoes.)

    We stopped shipping in parcels about 18 months ago. Nothing was making it to its destination. Always getting lost somewhere between the customs house and the delivery drivers.

      • I was thinking the same thing. H-1B visas? And even if you can pull that off (“we tried to find an American citizen, but none were qualified” is the usual line of bs) those are still “temporary”. Did all 16 of them marry a US citizen in order to seal the deal?

      • Over the span of several years (15), her relatives have moved to the US. The earlier arrivals are now out on their own, with careers and in the case of her uncles, job creators (who are hiring the newer arrivals). The more recent arrivals have been the aunts, nieces and nephews, who are going to school. We (the uncles and ourselves) have enough properties to house them, and none are on the public dole. It is a process that my wife has become pretty good at. She became a citizen when we got married in 1988. What has started out as “I know a relative who lives in the US” has become, “We are now citizens, its time to pay it forward for the rest who want out”.

        There is some legal work, but if a US citizen can sponsor a relative, it can be done. I don’t know if it is possible to sponsor a non-relative.

        @MRubio: The Venezuelan nieces are quite the hit with the mid-western boys… I don’t think these lads have ever seen anything so exotic.

        • Well done, Mr. Guapo.

          I’ve met a number of Cubans through the years (I’m on the west coast, not in south Florida), who were brought over by their parents in the 1960s, and are now very successful people. The US is better to have them. I’ve also met a few Venezuelans along the way, and they have also been industrious and not on the “dole” in any event.

  7. What’s amazing to me is Maduro thinking that by grasping more power the problems (airlines, medicine, etc.) will somehow be addressed, when in fact the B lost another 10% if it’s value today and 3.2 billion dollars are owed in a few weeks. How does a dictatorship who relies on international commerce believe he can just continue doing business as usual, entirely on his own terms? Eventually, Maduro will find himself reliant on only his own resources, which are almost down to nothing at all.

  8. I worked in the Middle East up untill recently and was on a month on month off contract in Dubai.
    Whenever i landed at Maiquetia the drama began for my connection to Margarita.
    And i did this for 8 years, never again, the slow drift into third world chaos was just too much to handle.
    Certain peoples really can f$%k everything up.
    ‘Aut simul stabunt aut simul cadent’

    • “Certain peoples really can f$%k everything up”

      Those people are making living off of you. As times get tough, they are more desperate. Think of it as panhandling. Once it gets too aggressive for your comfort zone, you avoid that intersection.

  9. When we are flying someone in and out, we typically use Copa, via P.C. I had an intern, as a risk analysis exercise, do a mock-up of what airline had the least amount of risk in Venezuela ceteris paribus. His results: Copa, and weirdly, American, followed by Carib. (Sidebar: Interns; highly motivated underpaid labor. They are so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.)

    I’ve been harassed flying in, but I recognize a small con when I see one. I feign ignorance of the language and they usually give up in frustration. I usually have a fake itinerary as well (sprinkled with government companies – PDVSA, Corpolec), because I am there for “work” as a consultant and not family – they’ve never once attempted to verify it. I’ve noticed they lean on you harder if you have family there since they leverage them against you, or vice versa.

    However, as much as my wife wants to, we will not be going back anytime soon. Family can come and go, we’ll buy whatever tickets they want. My concern is that she has lost her eye for danger and she has been hustled a couple of times. The personal risk is just too much at this point. It helps that her VZ passport AND cedula are expired to boot and they keep giving her appointments that are impossible to make.

    Fun fact: Copa and American have rather cheap flights, relative to the distance, to LAS ($700-$750) for those flying to the western US. Its easy to schedule a second extremely cheap flight (it is LAS, after all), or do a pickup, or have an excuse for a weekend excursion by flying them in there versus a more expensive trip.

    Bonus tip: When we send new stuff back, we make it appear used. Clothing has a light application of dust or dirt. Electronics go back with a cheap case scuffed up and broken screen cover that looks like a cracked screen. Money we send back rolled up and inserted inside of tampon wrappers that we reseal; we can get a few thousand in that way to tide the family over as needed and more often than not the customs or GNB are male and aren’t going to hassle us over them.

    • You know, Chavez owned the entire suite of Venezuelan articles on Wikipedia until he died, and he put people to editing them who had an excellent command of English. (While the opposition was busy talking amongst themselves in Spanish on blogs that couldn’t be used as reliable sources on Wikipedia, Chavez wrote the story in English that he wanted the world to read, from sources he comtrolled like Venezuelanalysis, and the lazy international press was happy to pick up that story and run with it, since it was mostly a narrative too complex for most of them anyway, and the Weisbrots of the world pitched in their pieces, but I digress … )

      Do you really want to be giving away all that information about how to deal with Maiquetia, even on an English-language site, as if “they” won’t be reading it? Because they will.

    • Yikes. I wouldn’t send in any more money rolled up in tampons, because they seem to be a hot commodity, along with condoms and other forms of birth control. Our CARE packages are pilfered of these items. (Yes, we send condoms. Lightweight, and easy to barter.)

      At the risk that the Chavistas might be reading this….

      Hint: Industry periodicals. Construction. Medical. Chemistry. Engineering. The drier the subject, the better. Preferably in a language that is hard to decipher. Czech or Polish have been winners for us. Hide the large bills between the pages. When customs sees these industry periodicals and text books, their eyes roll. Hide bills in the bindings of books and inside the book covers. Apparently, low level Chavista jobsworths don’t read.

  10. I’m glad I don’t fly anymore, it’s just unfortunate that I didn’t choose to stop the last time I was in the states.

    • It depends on your docs. If U.S. passport, renewable every 10 years, you’ll need to go back, since U.S.Embassy now/near future may not be able to renew, even if you could physically get to the Embassy to meet your appointment; a U.S. visa renewal faces similar constraints. If resident visa/C.I. expires, you’ll probably need greenbacks for renewal, but then face the very real possibility you wont be allowed back into Venezuela anyway, given current/coming sanctions. Of course, there’s always night time speedboat/penero from Margarita/Dutch Islands, along with other cargo….

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