U.S. Airlines Hit Venezuelan Turbulence

Talks begin in a dispute that is limiting acces to the South American country.
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Talks have been under way in Caracas in an effort to resolve a dispute that has led the Venezuelan government to sharply reduce air service by U.S. carriers.

The reduction is scheduled to take effect on March 1, Ash Wednesday, a day of heavy airline travel in the U.S.-Venezuela market because it is the day after Mardi Gras and marks the end of Carnival. There is a 50-50 chance the date of the reduction will be extended, sources in Caracas say.

On Thursday, Venezuela said it will prohibit flights by

Continental Airlines

(CAL) - Get Report

and

Delta Air Lines

,

(DALRQ)

and limit flights by

AMR's

(AMR)

American Airlines unit, the principal carrier in the U.S.-Venezuela market.

The government action was in response for restrictions on flights to the U.S. by Venezuelan carriers that have been in place for 10 years. The long-tense relationship between the U.S. and the Venezuelan government of Gen. Hugo Chavez has deteriorated further in recent weeks,highlighted earlier this month when each country drove out one official from the other's embassy.

"We are meeting with the Venezuelan government today," said American spokeswoman Martha Pantin. The airlines "are working closely with the U.S. departments of state and transportation to resolve the issue as quickly as possible," said Delta spokeswoman Gina Loflin. "We are very disappointed with this unilateral action by the Venezuelan government."

Miami aviation consultant Bob Booth said that while he does not support the Chavez government, the Federal Aviation Administration's safety restrictions on Venezuela, which are known as "Category Two" restrictions, seem unfair. They allow unlimited flights to foreign countries by U.S. carriers but restrict flights to the U.S. by carriers from the foreign countries.

"Obviously, this

action is just plain tragic," Booth said. "But I've been saying for 10 years that if Venezuela is an unsafe place for Venezuelan carriers to fly to the U.S., it should be unsafe for U.S. carriers to fly to Venezuela."

Venezuelan carrier Aeropostal is limited to three daily flights to Miami from Caracas, Valencia and Maracaibo. All must be flown with airplanes "wet-leased" from a U.S. company and flown by that company's pilots. The flight attendants are Venezuelan, however.

Meanwhile, American has five daily flights to Caracas, plus two flights that operate five days a week and one that operates twice a week. Another daily flight operates to Maracaibo. Most flights are from Miami. Delta has daily service between Atlanta and Caracas. Continental has daily Houston-Caracas service and a weekly Newark-Caracas flight.

The Federal Aviation Administration clamped down on Venezuela after a 1995 investigation, when federal regulators halted the U.S. operations of Zuliana, a Columbian-owned Venezuelan airline, because of maintenance violations. Citing concerns about Venezuelan air safety in general, the agency subsequently forbade any expansion in U.S. markets by Venezuelan carriers.