Continental to Offer Refunds or Put Passengers on Partner Carriers if Venezuela Acts

With a threatened ban on most U.S. airline flights to Venezuela looming at month's end, Continental Airlines detailed Friday what it will do for ticket holders if it can't fly there.

A suspension of operating rights of U.S. airlines to Venezuela in upcoming weeks would come at a bad time. It would sharply reduce flights just before Easter, which is a big holiday in Latin America that prompts many people to travel.

Venezuela has said it could end flights March 30 to and from the United States by Delta Air Lines and Continental and to greatly reduce American Airlines' flights.

If there is a flight ban, Continental passengers will be able to exchange tickets without any penalties or obtain full refunds, according to a statement by the Houston-based carrier.

Continental, which flies to Caracas from Houston and Newark, also said it would try to accommodate passengers' travel needs through its network in the region. Details still are being worked out, a spokesman said.

Continental said Friday that it hopes negotiations between that country's National Institute of Civil Aviation and the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority "will develop positively in the next days."

Venezuelan authorities are pushing the FAA to let Venezuela add flights to U.S. destinations, but the U.S. says that country must meet U.S. safety standards before that is done.

No one could be reached for comment at the Venezuelan consulate Friday afternoon.

The Venezuelan Travel Agencies Association has said the move would hurt passengers and travel agencies there.

U.S. officials have strongly urged Venezuela not to impose any unilateral actions March 30, which they say would violate the bilateral air transport services agreement between the two countries.

Should Venezuela follow through, the U.S. would retaliate by suspending Venezuelan carriers' flights, William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, said earlier this week.

The FAA determined in 1995 that Venezuela did not comply with international safety rules. Venezuelan authorities have told the U.S. they believe they are in compliance and would like to increase service to the U.S. but cannot until the FAA concludes they meet the standards.

Talks have been under way regarding the FAA going back to Venezuela soon. Agency officials have gone there several times since 1995 to update their assessments, including a visit in the past year or so.

Continental also said it remains committed to the Venezuela markets and to providing service from its Houston and New York area hubs.

Continental has code-sharing partners in Latin America such as Aeromexico and others that could help passengers caught by a suspension of service, a spokesman said.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, a member of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, said if Venezuela moves forward with the ban, it will hurt itself most.

Poe said the move could hurt the U.S. economy, but he believes Venezuela would be more adversely affected.

"The best thing Venezuela could do would be to comply with safety regulations," Poe said. "They are punishing their own people and their own economy."

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