Venezuelan Air Dispute Appears Resolved

The U.S. FAA has moved to raise the safety rating of Venezuela.
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The Federal Aviation Administration has moved to raise the safety rating of Venezuela, apparently resolving a conflict that had authorities in the South American nation threatening to sharply curtail the air service they would allow from the U.S.

The FAA has given Venezuela a Category 1 rating, the higher of two safety designations for countries. Venezuela has been operating under a Category 2 rating since 1995. The lower rating prevented Venezuelan carriers from operating their own airplanes into the U.S.

Over the past several months, Venezuelan authorities have said they would restrict flights to their country by U.S. carriers if the restriction wasn't lifted. The conflict has played out during a period of strained relations between the U.S. and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

U.S. airlines that serve Venezuela, led by

AMR

(AMR)

unit American Airlines, have actively sought to broker a solution to the aviation problem.

The rating change to Category 1 follows a visit to Venezuela by FAA inspectors, who found that the country's safety infrastructure conforms to standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

"We hadn't done an assessment in more than a decade," said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. "But the ICAO has done two audits since then, and we have seen increasing improvement."

The U.S. Embassy in Caracas issued a press release commending the Venezuelan aviation authority "for its cooperation and its efforts to improve the level of aviation safety oversight" in Venezuela.

"This is excellent news for the thousands of passengers who fly between the United States and Venezuela," the embassy said. "We look forward to the resumption of a smooth, positive and mutually beneficial civil aviation relationship."

For more than a decade, Aeropostal and other Venezuelan carriers have had to lease aircraft with pilots from U.S. companies to serve U.S. destinations. With four "wet-leased" flights a day to Miami, the Venezuelan airline Aeropostal has about a quarter of the traffic between the two countries. Only the flight attendants are Venezuelan.

Meanwhile, American has five daily Miami-Venezuela flights, a daily flight from Puerto Rico, five flights a week from Dallas and two a week from New York.

Delta Air Lines

(DALRQ)

has daily service between Atlanta and Caracas.

Continental Airlines

(CAL) - Get Report

has daily Houston-Caracas service and a weekly Newark-Caracas flight. Many of the U.S. carriers' flights have been added since 1995, when Venezuelan expansion was curtailed by the FAA.

American spokesman Tim Smith said the "announcement reflects a lot of hard work at the government level on both sides, and we were supportive in any way we could be."

Delta said it was pleased with the development. "Venezuela is an integral part of Delta's international growth strategy as we seek to become the No. 2 airline serving Latin America," a Delta spokesman said Friday.