U.S., Venezuela Hold Talks on Airline Ban

The American ambassador said Tuesday that U.S. and Venezuelan aviation officials were nearing a "permanent solution" averting a ban on U.S. airlines and ending a dispute over U.S. restrictions on Venezuelan carriers.

Venezuela claims the safety-based restrictions have locked Venezuelan airlines out of the U.S. market. It has threatened to retaliate by blocking nearly all flights by U.S. carriers starting Thursday.

A delegation from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is in Caracas this week to evaluate Venezuela's claim that it has improved airline safety and regulation.

"My hope is that during this week they will conclude these consultations that will permit a permanent solution," U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said.

The FAA has ranked Venezuela with a category 2 safety rating since 1995, preventing Venezuelan from flying their own planes to the United states or from starting new services.

Two Venezuelan carriers operate flights to the U.S. by leasing planes and crew from American companies.

Venezuela says a 2004 audit by the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization found that the country met 88 percent of recommended international aviation safety standards, up from 39 percent in 1999.

The FAA wasn't expected to decide whether to upgrade Venezuela's safety rating until after the delegation returns to Washington on Thursday.

Venezuela has said that if the FAA fails to grant it category 1 status by March 30, it will prohibit all flights by Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc. and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc., and restrict flights by Fort Worth, Texas-based AMR Corp.'s American Airlines.

Nelson Ramiz, president of the leading Venezuelan airline Aeropostal, said the U.S. restrictions have cost the company $3 million a year in leasing fees, while unfairly allowing U.S. airlines to dominate the routes.

"I've been competing with a 900-pound gorilla with my hands tied and I will love it, enjoy it, to compete with that gorilla with my hands loose," he told The Associated Press.

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