FEATURE-Venezuela airline crisis makes travelers ever more inventive
By Girish Gupta
CARACAS, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Buses across jungle borders, boats through Caribbean waters and private flights from small airfields have become a new norm for departing Venezuela as a multi-billion dollar pay dispute turns the country into something of a 'no-fly' zone.
Major international airlines have slashed seat availability by half since last year, pulling many routes entirely in a spat with Venezuela's socialist government about the repatriation of $3.6 billion in ticket revenue.
The dwindling supply has sent prices spiraling for available seats, and led to a surge of more inventive travel itineraries via circuitous routes and other means.
"I've never flown private but I had to because you just can't get a normal flight," said Orinda Pamfil, 23, at the small, exclusive Charallave airport in hills outside Caracas.
Unable to find a commercial ticket to the United States, she was lucky to be traveling to Houston in a spare seat on a small plane owned by a friend of a friend. "It's impossible for normal Venezuelans to travel," she said, clutching designer luggage.
Hiring a seven-seat private plane, such as a Learjet 55, costs upwards of $2,500 per hour, said private pilot Carlos da Silva. Used to flying super-wealthy clients, he is now receiving calls from groups of middle-class Venezuelans looking to share costs.
"There's been a surge in demand because people are desperate," added another pilot Nicolas Veloz who estimated demand was up at least 20 percent in recent months.
"They have business, school, health issues abroad. Sometimes people just have to get out in an emergency." Continuación...