Venezuela Bars Two U.S. Airlines, Restricts Another

Venezuela has prohibited Continental Airlines and Delta Air Lines from flying into this South American nation and is restricting American Airlines, Francisco Paz, the president of the National Aviation Institute, said.

Speaking late Thursday, Paz said that the measure was taken because the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, restricted commercial jets registered in Venezuela 10 years ago due to safety violations.

The ban would take effect on March 1, Paz told the local Globovision television channel.

Delta flies daily from Simon Bolivar international Airport to Atlanta while Continental has daily flights to Houston and weekly flights to New York. American Airlines has daily routes to Puerto Rico, Miami and Dallas.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called the move a violation of the 1953 Air Transport Services Agreement between the United States and Venezuela. He said the United States is urging Venezuela to respect the agreement because Thursday's decision by Venezuela's aviation institute is "unilateral, it's unjustified, it's unwarranted."

Ereli declined to speculate on whether the Venezuelan move was part of a political campaign against the United States.

Relations between Caracas and Washington have been tense in recent weeks with U.S. officials voicing concerns over the health of Venezuela's democracy and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatening to cut off oil exports to the United States.

Roberto Pulido, president of the Venezuelan Association of Airlines, told The Associated Press the three U.S.-based airlines received notification of the ban on Thursday and were meeting Friday with Venezuelan aviation officials to discuss the measure.

"The closing or restriction of operations by these airlines will ... dramatically affect tourism and business trips," the association said in a statement.

In 1996, the FAA ruled that Venezuela must tighten its airline safety procedures and downgraded its civil aviation authority to Category II, restricting flights because Venezuela allegedly didn't meet international safety standards.

Venezuelan officials say they have improved safety standards since then.

"We have exhausted all avenues with the U.S. aeronautical authority," Venezuela's National Aviation Institute said in a statement issued Thursday. "We have been forced to reduce the frequency of flights of U.S. airline companies from the U.S."

U.S. aviation authorities have "failed to give Venezuelan airlines the rights they deserve under bilateral agreements," the statement added.

Delta spokesman John Kennedy said that the airline was "very disappointed by this unilateral action by the Venezuelan government and we are working closely with the U.S. Departments of State and Transportation as well as our peer carriers who received similar notice to resolve the issue as quickly as possible."

Dan Elwell, American Airlines spokesman, said his company "had no warning of this announcement at all," adding that Venezuela is a very important market to the United States.

"We're sort of watching and waiting," he said.

U.S. transportation company Federal Express also said it would be affected.

"FedEx is disappointed by the unexpected action by the Venezuelan government and regrets its impact on the business community," spokesman Camilo Pino said.

In a formal statement, Continental Airlines noted that negotiations were underway, but it added, "The outcome, however, is not within Continental's control."

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