Lack of flights leaves Venezuelans seeking more inventive ways out

| Oct. 12, 2014 | Caracas, Venezuela

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Buses across jungle borders, boats through Caribbean waters and private flights from small airfields have become the new norm for departing Venezuela. A multi-billion euro pay dispute has turned this country into something of a 'no-fly' zone.

The big international airlines have slashed seat availability by half since last year. They are waiting for the socialist government to repatriate nearly three billion euros in ticket revenue.

I went down to the exclusive Charallave airport which sits in the hills outside Caracas. There I met Orinda Pamfil, a 23-year old who was about to take a private flight to Houston.

"I've never flown private but I had to because you just can't get a normal flight," she told me.

She was unable to find a commercial ticket but was lucky to be travelling in a spare seat on a small plane owned by a friend of a friend. "It's impossible for normal Venezuelans to travel," she added, clutching her designer luggage.

Private pilot Carlos da Silva told me that hiring his seven-seat Learjet 55 would cost upwards of 2,000 euros per hour. He is used to flying super-wealthy clients but is now receiving calls from groups of middle-class Venezuelans looking to share costs.

"There's been a surge in demand because people are desperate," added another pilot Nicolas Veloz who told me demand was up at least 20 percent in recent months.

"People have business, school, health issues abroad,” he said. “Sometimes people just have to get out in an emergency."

Venezuelans unable to afford private planes or find a rare seat on a commercial flight are taking more laborious trips across land and sea.

I went to Caracas’ tiny Rutas de America bus terminal and spoke to 39-year-old Yane Gonzalez. She was about to take a four-day bus trip across the Andes via Colombia to the Peruvian capital Lima thousands of kilometres away.

"Of course I'd rather fly!" Gonzalez told me.

Jason Sinclair is a spokesman for industry body the International Air Travel Association. They represent 24 airlines that are struggling to get their money out of the Venezuelan government.

"The country unfortunately is disconnecting from the world economy and runs the risk of deeper isolation," he told me. "It simply is not sustainable for the airlines to fly to a country where they cannot be paid."

Air Canada, Alitalia, American Airlines, Delta, United, Lufthansa and Iberia have all cut some if not all flights in recent months.

Flights that are still available now cost some three times what they would in a more normal market, as the airlines add on a premium to make up for the lost revenue.

A six hour return flight from Miami to Caracas on American Airlines for example for later this month is listed at 1,500 euros. A comparable flight from Miami to Bogota, in neighbouring Colombia, is around 600 euros.

Though his ministers are in discussions with the airlines, President Nicolas Maduro has cast the problem as part of an "economic war" against him by capitalist foes. He has threatened airlines that pull out with permanent expulsion.

Maduro has kept up the socialist policies and currency controls of his predecessor Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer last year, but he faces numerous problems from shortages of goods to high inflation.

The airline problem is one more headache for the country’s middle classes.

"If you're young, rich and agile, you'll find a way to get out," travel agent Doris Gaal told me. "But it's not going to be easy."

For World Report, this is Girish Gupta in Caracas