Flying Away from Here

The question is not why airlines are leaving Venezuela, but how come they stuck around so long.

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.