Amidst a deepening political and economic crisis across Venezuela, on 8th March 2018, the government announced a ban on all commercial passenger and cargo flights to the Netherlands Antilles islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, until further notice.
There are shortages of food and many basic goods across Venezuela. The government claim they have imposed this new ban to help prevent smuggling, and to deter the thousands of Venezuelans who they say regularly leave the country to buy and sell goods abroad.
In reality, the situation is far more grim. Since the start of 2018, there have numerous reports of boats full of starving Venezuelans, many of which left the country illegally, turning up on the shores of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao. The U.N. is now warning of a humanitarian “catastrophe”, as worsening food shortages have seen looting and protests escalate over the past few months, claiming the lives of at least seven people so far.
In recent weeks, Colombia has tightened controls along it’s border with Venezuela, to try to curb the flow of thousands of migrants seeking to escape.
All operators, in particular those with an N-reg on the tail, should be aware of the rapidly deepening crisis in Venezuela. Here’s a summary of the current situation:
- The airport is located in an extremely high-risk area for armed robbery and kidnappings. Before suspending all flights to Venezuela in Aug 2017, Avianca hired bodyguards after shots were fired during a robbery of a bus carrying its crew. Some other carriers took to flying crew to spend the night in neighbouring countries, rather than risk staying overnight anywhere in Caracas. In Feb 2018, Ecuadorian state airline Tame joined Avianca in a long list of airlines that no longer operate to the country, including: Aerolineas Airlines, United Airlines, Aeromexico, Lufthansa, Alitalia and Air Canada. Most reports estimate that international traffic in Venezuela has dropped by around 65-75% since its peak in 2013.
- Reports of airport officials detaining some passengers for long periods, often demanding bribes and confiscating personal items. The US have warned that “security forces have arbitrarily detained U.S. citizens for long periods”, and that “the U.S. Embassy may not be notified of the detention of a U.S. citizen, and consular access to detainees may be denied or severely delayed.”
- Colombia’s pilots’ association says its members who have flown to Venezuela have had to deal with contaminated fuel and hours-long delays as the National Guard pulls suitcases off flights to loot them.
- On Aug 8, 2017, a Venezuelan lawyer was shot dead at a ticket counter at SVMI/Caracas airport. In 2016, an Egyptian visitor was killed walking outside the airport between terminals after arriving on a flight from Germany.
- Frequent power and water cut across the country. The airport suffered power cuts in Dec 2017 and again in Mar 2018, forcing the suspension of all ops for several hours each time.
Travel advice Western countries are all now recommending against “all but essential travel”. A large majority of airline carriers have now stopped operating to Venezuela, for a mix of reasons – not least because onward payment of ticket monies have been stopped by the Venezuelan government. The US describes the greatest current risks as social unrest, violent crime, pervasive food and medicine shortages, and the arbitrary arrest and detention on U.S. citizens.
Sanctions Both the EU and the US have imposed sanctions on Venezuela, with specific restrictions on President Maduro himself. This creates an uncertain situation for foreign aircraft operating in Venezuelan airspace. So far there have not been any reported cases of any retaliatory sanctions, such as grounding of foreign aircraft, although with the crisis worsening, such measures are not out of the question.
Notable withdrawals On August 1st, the UK Foreign Office followed the US in withdrawing family of personnel from their respective embassies. This is a common precursor to a deeper security risk, and in the last 5 years we’ve seen this pattern in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Then in Jan 2018, IATA closed its offices in Venezuela. They said that the exchange controls the government placed on taking money out of the country effectively left it with a debt to IATA of $3.8 billion, which it refused to pay.
Flight Ops See below on overflight. There were interruptions to Notam and Metar service throughout 2017. At one point it appeared that SV** had lost its connection to the international AFTN system.
Airport Spy The most recent OpsGroup member reports are not encouraging. The top report on SVMI is titled “Hazardous in Caracas”: “The operating conditions in Caracas have deteriorated to a new level. New ATC controllers that have been installed in the last few months do not speak English very well, if at all, and in some cases and they are issuing clearances not appropriate for IFR or terrain clearance. Tremendous caution should be exercised especially when moving internally within Venezuela. SVMI authorities are now demanding to see the complete insurance policy for the aircraft, not just proof of insurance. We had Spanish speaking personnel with us and when we questioned a local SVMI controller about not using English, his response was that we should all be speaking Spanish! “. More in AirportSpy. If you’ve been through recently, add your report.
Overflight Operations through Venezuelan airspace do not require an overflight permit, and so there have been no incidences recorded of US aircraft being denied a permit. However, on several occasions in the last month, Venezuela has for short periods arbitrarily closed its airspace to overflying aircraft. A common problem with Venezuelan overflight is the denial of airspace entry due to unpaid navigation fees, which is why checking this in advance is recommended. This may be a tool used to deny US aircraft entry in the future. Plan operations through the SVZM/Maiquetia FIR with caution. To be clear, we do not assess any risk to enroute aircraft, but be mindful of the fact that if you do enter SVZM airspace, you may end up diverting to an SV** airport. Right now, that’s not ideal.
Avoiding Venezuela If you elect to avoid SVZM airspace…
To the west:
– via Colombia (SKED/Bogota FIR) – permit required for all overflights.
– watch out if planning a flight through the TNCF/Curacao FIR – although a permit to overfly is not required here, they have started denying entry to non-IATA members if they have not prepaid for navigation fees in advance. More on that here.
To the east:
– via Guyana (SYGC/Georgetown FIR) – permit not required
– via Suriname (SMPM/Paramaribio FIR) – permit required
– via French Guyana (SOOO/Rochambeau FIR) – permit required unless operating a GA aircraft under 12.5k lbs.
For more detailed info on each country’s specific permit requirements, take a look here.
If you need a tech stop and previously used/considered SVMI, then look at alternatives like TNCC, TTPP, SBEG, SMJP. Use the OpsGroup planning map to figure your best alternate options.