In socialist Venezuela, air travel becomes a white-knuckle affair

"Socialism or death" is taking on a new meaning for Venezuelan air travelers. Recently, a spate of incidents and emergency landings by some of Venezuela's domestic air carriers -- including two emergency landings occurring hours apart -- prompted Hugo Chavez's government to open an inquiry concerning the causes of the latest in-flight emergencies.

In one incident, an Aeropostal DC-9 carrying 125 passengers reported problems with both engines. It made a hard landing in Puerto Ordaz. Photos of the DC-9 and its damaged engines -- both torn loose and hanging from the fuselage -- may be seen at The Aviation Herald and Noticas 24. In another incident, an Acerca Airlines DC-9 carrying 90 passengers made an emergency landing at Carlos Piar airport after smoke was detected in the cabin. No injuries were reported during either incident involving the aging DC-9s.

These incidents and others have raised the usual questions about maintenance standards. But other observers say there may be other problems involved -- specifically, Venezuela's draconian currency exchange controls and their effect upon Venezuela's domestic airlines. Exchange controls are a cornerstone of Chavez's command-and-control economic policies.

As Financial Times writer Benedict Mander explains in a blog post about the aviation incidents:

As well as a general problem of oversight, there is a consensus that the fundamental cause is a widespread lack of maintenance. And shoddy maintenance is largely due to the fact that getting spare parts in this country, as any Venezuelan will tell you with a weary sigh, can be a traumatic exercise, not to mention time-consuming and costly, if it is possible at all.


The reason is simple enough: currency controls.




The problem is, access to dollars is severely restricted in Venezuela - in part to prevent capital flight and in part also because of an exchange rate that is seriously overvalued -- which means that dollars are unusually cheap, and hence demand for them is unusually high.


Basically, like so many other sectors of the economy, Venezuela's tight-fisted exchange control agency isn't giving airlines enough dollars.

At the same time, more cynical observes speculate that good old-fashioned Venezuelan corruption and sloppiness also may have played a role in the spate of aviation incidents. There are about 17 private airlines in Venezuela, a number that includes charter and scheduled carriers.

Hugo Chavez has no reason to fear for his own safety when taking to Venezuela's skies. He flies in his Airbus A-319, the most modern presidential jet in Latin America. Amid much criticism, it was purchased to replace an aging Boeing 707 used by previous Venezuelan presidents. 

Chavez, meanwhile, continues to battle cancer. Its type and prognosis is a highly guarded state secret. One thing that's certain about El Presidente's health: He's not on his death bed as El Nuevo Herald (sister publication of The Miami Herald) recently reported, citing unnamed sources. Chavez, to be sure, quickly dismissed that news report and on Saturday, looking reasonably fit, he announced at the presidential palace that he would return to Cuba yet again for a series of medical exams next week. "We are going to confirm what I believe is the case; no more cancer cells...with the blessing of God, that will be the news," Chavez said. (For a video of the news conference, click here.)