A team of Federal Aviation Administration officials is on its way to Venezuela for a visit that apparently will resolve a crisis that had Venezuelan authorities threatening to sharply curtail air service between there and the U.S. starting next week. The officials are expected to begin an assessment Monday of Venezuela's airline-safety monitoring standards, said a U.S. government official who asked not to be named. They would then make recommendations intended to enable the country to meet international standards. In return, Venezuelan authorities are prepared to lift the threat, although they haven't formally done so, Nelson Ramiz, the CEO of Aeropostal, said Friday. Aeropostal is Venezuela's largest airline. Venezuela said last month that it would suspend many of the passenger and cargo flights to the country by U.S. carriers. The country acted because, for the past decade, 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. The suspension would have affected flights by Continental Airlines ( CAL) and Delta Air Lines ( DALRQ), while limiting service 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, led by American, have actively sought to broker a solution to the problem. Since 1995, Aeropostal and other Venezuelan carriers have had to lease aircraft with pilots from U.S. companies to serve U.S. destinations. Ramiz said Aeropostal is prepared to continue to operate in this manner for as long as several months, providing progress is being made to upgrade Venezuela's FAA designation.
"I have never seen a contract finalized unless there is pressure, so the pressure from Venezuela should remain," he said. Ramiz said Venezuela had been seeking for two years to have the FAA visit and assess improvements in its aviation-safety infrastructure. Last week, officials from the FAA and INAC, Venezuela's aviation authority, met to reach an arrangement that would allow air service between the two countries to continue at the existing level while the assessment is made and FAA recommendations are carried out. With four "wet-leased" flights a day to Miami, Aeropostal has about a quarter of the traffic between Venezuela and the U.S. 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 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.