Venezuela’s Biggest Airport Is in Free Fall





A road sign, next to a campaign poster of President Nicolás Maduro, indicates the way to Simón Bolívar International Airport, outside Caracas.

Since 2014, more than a dozen airlines have stopped operating from Maiquetía airport in Caracas because of the country’s political and economic crisis.

In 1976, you could fly from Caracas, Venezuela, to Paris in six hours, crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard Air France’s Concorde. Only France, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States were also regularly served by the futuristic supersonic aircraft. At the time, Venezuela’s oil-fueled economy was the richest in South America, and for air travelers, it was the continent’s best-connected state.  

An Air France magazine ad featuring its supersonic Paris-Caracas route in the 1980s. (Air France)

In the decades since, Maiquetía International Airport (renamed Simón Bolívar International in 1972, but still widely known by its former name) boomed with taxiing 747s on intercontinental routes to Dublin, London, Amsterdam, and Zurich. Caracas also boasted several connections to major American hubs, such as Miami, New York, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Atlanta, operated by both Venezuelan carriers and American, Delta, United, Braniff, and Pan-Am.

Today, that scene has changed dramatically. Since 2014, when Venezuela descended into a political and economic crisis, 15 airlines have ceased operations to and from Caracas, leaving the city––and the country––in a deepening state of aviation isolation. Maiquetía’s terminal frequently goes without air conditioning, power, or running water; fears of crime in the city and in the airport itself have caused some remaining carriers to send flight crews to other cities rather than having them stay overnight in Caracas.

The fall of Maiquetía started when Air Canada canceled its route from Toronto in March 2014, followed by Alitalia’s withdrawal of its Rome-Caracas operation in April 2015. Eleven more carriers followed, including Delta, United, Lufthansa, Aeromexico, Aerolíneas Argentinas, GOL, Avianca, and LATAM, leaving the Venezuelan capital with no direct services to Dallas, Atlanta, New York, Houston, San Juan, Fort Lauderdale, Frankfurt, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Lima, Bogotá, São Paulo, and Santiago.

Currently, the only U.S. carrier operating to and from Venezuela is American Airlines, with a single daily flight to Miami from both Caracas and Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city. Two years ago, there were more than 40 flights per week between the Venezuelan capital and Miami.

The airline exodus is just one symptom of the deteriorating political and economic crisis in Venezuela since the death of Hugo Chávez. Nicolás Maduro, his hand-picked successor, became president with 50.6 percent of the vote in 2013. Maduro continued Chavez’s policies, which produced a great amount of overspending, a devaluation of the bolívar, hyperinflation of 25,000 percent, and shortages due to imports and foreign currency restrictions, among other factors. It has been estimated that 90 percent of Venezuelans now live below the poverty line. A vast number of Venezuelans have fled the country, while Maduro won re-election in May in a controversial election that many members of the international community have rejected as illegitimate.

For airlines, Maduro’s economic policies have made the Venezuelan capital a very difficult place to do business.

Like in any other country, international carriers sell their tickets in national currency, which later gets exchanged into U.S. dollars, euros, or other foreign currencies. In the case of Venezuela, passengers were booking and paying for their flights in bolívares, the nation’s currency. This income had to be exchanged into foreign currency, so it could be repatriated to the airlines’ central bank accounts.

In order to prevent capital flight and to halt a devaluation of the bolívar, in 2003 the Chavez government began enforcing fixed exchange rates and restricting the purchase of U.S. dollars for both companies and people, so the bolívares collected by ticket sales couldn’t get converted into foreign currency. And as the recent economic crisis continues, the Maduro government has progressively tightened these currency controls through CENCOEX, Venezuela’s National Center for Foreign Trade.

As a result, international airlines in Venezuela have billions of bolívares frozen inside the country, and the carriers that remain have stopped selling tickets in national currency. Now, every international carrier only sells their tickets in euros or U.S. dollars, two currencies which are extremely difficult to get inside Venezuela. U.S. dollars, for example, are sold on the black market at rates almost 25 times more expensive than their official value. For euros, the rate is nearly 30 times higher.

The International Air Transport Association––also known as IATA–– estimates that airlines have been unable collect nearly $3.8 billion from ticket sales in Venezuela since restrictions to currency exchange were strengthened in 2015. The association also closed its Caracas office in January 2018.

Avianca’s check-in screens inform passengers about canceled flights when the airline was still operating from Maiquetía. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

If Venezuelans want to fly American Airlines, Air France, or any other international carrier, they must be either very wealthy and have access to foreign currencies at the black market, or be primary holders of a bank account abroad, which would allow them to pay for their ticket in euros or U.S. dollars. Both scenarios are rare in a country where the monthly average salary is approximately $1.3 at the unofficial exchange rate, or $32 at the official one.

Without available foreign currency, replacement parts and other imported goods needed for aircraft maintenance, airport management, and other tasks have become scarce, and airlines dropped routes even when passenger demand was high, as for flights originating in U.S. cities like New York, Houston, Atlanta, and Fort Lauderdale.

“If you want to see how the country is doing, take a look at its aviation industry,” says José Leonardo Garelli, a Venezuelan aviation expert and editor at MiAerolinea.com, a bilingual blog dedicated to the airline industry.

More recently, local media have reported that the airport is experiencing frequent power blackouts and that water isn’t running in the terminal’s toilets, while hundreds of passengers are being left stranded after flights get canceled without notice. Since Maiquetía’s cleaning services company went bankrupt, there’s no one sanitizing bathrooms, cleaning floors, or taking out the trash.

Crime and safety is another growing concern. Since 2017, security for the airport has been provided by the National Bolivarian Guard, or GNB, Venezuela’s highly militarized police force. An investigation from ABC, one of Spain’s largest newspapers, reported that passengers on international-bound flights were being extorted by GNB officers at the check-in area before going through any security checkpoint. According to ABC, members of this “military mafia” regularly threatened to deny boarding and demanded foreign currency, tech gadgets, or jewelry from travelers.

Arriving passengers are being greeted with similar treatment. Bands of thieves are said, by several media accounts, to be colluding with customs officers who identify potential wealthy targets entering the country on international flights. The travelers are then stopped at gunpoint on the freeway that links Caracas and Maiquetía. In one heavily publicized incident, a man was shot and killed by a sicario (or hitman) in August 2017 while checking in at an airline counter in front of dozens of people.

Passengers in Maiquetía airport wait for their international flight while standing on the airport’s famous mosaic floor. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

A week before that murder, the Spanish national airline Iberia decided to discontinue their nonstop service from Madrid, mainly because the crew did not feel safe spending the night in Caracas. The airline still flies to Maiquetía, but now operates with a stopover in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, for the crew to sleep and change shifts.

Peter Cerdà, regional vice-president for the Americas at IATA, said that more airlines could stop flying into Venezuela if the situation worsens. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of operating airlines in Venezuela keeps declining,” he told Spanish news agency EFE. “Our problem is just a grain of sand compared to the country’s situation, but, unfortunately, Venezuela is isolating itself from the rest of the world.”

That isolation is reflected in the toll on the country’s tourism industry. According to the World Tourism Organization, international visitors into Venezuela have plummeted from 1,061,000 visitors in 2012 to 681,111 in 2016. During the same years, the number of tourists from the U.S. fell from 79,248 to 29,604. Visitors from South American countries decreased nearly 36 percent between 2015 and 2016. Tourism revenue is also in freefall, dropping 49 percent––from $1.1 billion in 2008 to $546 million in 2016. Figures from 2017 and 2018 were not available.

CityLab contacted the Instituto Aeropuerto Internacional de Maiquetía, the Ministry of Transportation agency that oversees and manages the airport’s operations. After several attempts, officials said they didn’t have any updated statistics and instead referred us to the Ministry of Transportation. When contacted, the Ministry said those statistics were not under their responsibility and suggested that we should contact airport authorities again. Both institutions said they had no comments on the airport’s current conditions.

Garelli isn’t optimistic that things will improve soon. “What we’ve seen here is a gradual, progressive debacle, and I am sure it will just get worse,” he says. “It’s sad. It pains me to actually witness this. I’m not the only one who wants our city to become, once again, the entry way to South America.”  

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