A team of Federal Aviation Administration officials will likely visit Venezuela in the coming months in an apparent effort to ease the tension over air service between that nation and the U.S., sources say. The officials would seek to help Venezuela's civil aviation authority take the necessary steps to meet international safety standards, said a government official familiar with the situation. The visit represents a bid to respond to Venezuela's threat to suspend many of the passenger and cargo flights to the country by U.S. carriers. Venezuela acted because, for the past 10 years, an FAA ruling has prevented flights to the U.S. by Venezuelan airlines. In 1995, the FAA designated Venezuela as a Category 2 country, meaning that it can't increase service to the U.S. and must lease aircraft from a Category 1 country in order to serve U.S. airports. Last month, Venezuela said it would suspend flights by Continental Airlines ( CAL) and Delta Air Lines ( DALRQ), while limiting flights by AMR's ( AMR) American Airlines unit, the principal carrier in the U.S.-Venezuela market. Implementation of the suspension, originally slated for March 1, was subsequently delayed until March 30. Strained relations between the U.S. and the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have become more apparent in recent months. The U.S. airlines that serve Venezuela have been seeking to broker a solution to the problem. American Airlines backs Venezuela's efforts to have an FAA inspection, company spokeswoman Martha Pantin said. "We fully support having the FAA coming to Venezuela to conduct a full inspection," she said. "We continue to be optimistic that this situation will be resolved." American Senior Vice President Peter Dolara, visiting Caracas Wednesday, called on the FAA to visit Venezuela as soon as possible to review its aviation infrastructure, according to media reports in Caracas.
Nelson Ramiz, CEO of Aeropostal, Venezuela's largest airline, said he welcomes an inspection because it will show that Venezuela's civil aviation authority meets international specifications. In recent years, Ramiz said, Venezuela has committed $178 million to upgrade its aviation system. "The government has elevated the safety standards of this country, but it has not been recognized by the FAA," he said in an interview. "For two years, we have been preparing ourselves for an inspection by the FAA, and trying to get them to come here." State Department spokesman Noel Clay said the FAA "is prepared to assess Venezuelan compliance with (international) standards," but he wouldn't comment on the timetable. An FAA spokesman also declined to comment, referring inquiries to the State Department. Ramiz said the International Civil Aviation Organization conducted an inspection of Venezuela's aviation oversight last year and found that compliance was good. "We comply with close to 90% of the ICAO safety audit," he said. An ICAO spokesman in Montreal didn't return phone calls from TheStreet.com. A U.S. citizen, Ramiz purchased Aeropostal in 1996. The company has revenue of about $240 million annually and net income of several million dollars, he said. The airline will undergo a safety audit conducted by a third party for the International Air Transport Association this spring, he said. The audit is part of IATA's effort to establish uniform international aviation safety standards. With four flights a day to Miami, Aeropostal has about a quarter of the traffic between Venezuela and the U.S., but must fly with MD-82s leased from a U.S. company. 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. American's schedule would be cut to three daily Miami flights under the pending restrictions that Venezuela would impose. Also, Delta has daily service between Atlanta and Caracas. Continental 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.