The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuela was once an aviation gateway to South America. Now it’s an outcast.

Protesters march during a demonstration in support of a referendum on President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on Wednesday. (Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg News)

Perched on a coastal plain at the very northern tip of South America, Caracas’s Simón Bolívar International Airport was once the aviation gateway to the continent.

Charles Lindbergh scouted the airport’s location in 1929, according to Venezuelan aviation lore, and by 1959, Pan Am was routing its New York-Buenos Aires flights with a stop in Caracas. By the late 1970s, Venezuela was so rich in oil wealth that Concorde jets were swooping in to whisk shoppers off to Paris.

These days, the Caracas airport is a depressing, lonely place, and Venezuelan air travel has shriveled. International carriers have about $4 billion stuck in virtually worthless Venezuelan bolivars that government banks won’t let them convert into hard currency, so they are cutting their losses and dropping Caracas flights. LATAM, the largest carrier in Latin America, took off down the runway this week and isn’t coming back.

By most accounts, Venezuela’s economy is the worst-performing in the world, with the International Monetary Fund predicting a 10 percent contraction this year. Annual inflation is running at more than 700 percent, and rioters in several cities have stormed supermarkets chanting, “We want food!”

Venezuelans are so desperate they are streaming over the border to buy food

Since 2013, when the bolivar started its steep drop, the number of passengers traveling to and from Venezuela has fallen nearly 30 percent, according the International Air Transport Association, a leading airline trade group. That is an especially large drop, according to spokesman Jason Sinclair, given that commercial air travel is rapidly increasing almost everywhere else.

“We don’t know of anywhere else in the world that has had this level of decline,” he said. “Globally, the number of air travelers is expected to double in the next 20 years, so anyplace that has no growth or is declining really stands out.”

Air Canada was one of the first to dump Venezuela, in 2014, blaming “civil unrest.” Since then, Alitalia, Aeromexico, Lufthansa and others have followed, despite threats from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro that carriers who pull out won’t see a dime of the money they are owed.

American Airlines, which once offered flights from three U.S. cities, now flies from Miami only. Aerolineas Argentinas has cut its Buenos Aires service from seven flights per week to two.

“Even the carriers who haven’t stopped flying to Venezuela have all reduced the frequency of their flights,” Sinclair said. “They are flying less or not flying from the same number of cities they used to, or they are using smaller planes."

With global oil prices slumped, some nations in Africa, including Angola and Nigeria, also have fallen behind on payments to international carriers, Sinclair added.

“But it’s nothing of the magnitude we’ve seen in Venezuela,” he said.

Venezuela’s aviation demise has been a boon to the South American airports that have replaced Caracas as major hubs for international carriers. The new El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, Colombia, now receives more than three times as many passengers as Caracas, according to industry data. The international airport in Lima, Peru, has seen its passenger volume surge 35 percent in two years.

Many foreign carriers are still flying to Caracas only because they sell a significant-enough portion of their tickets outside the country, in U.S. dollars or other hard currency, and that keeps their Venezuela routes solvent, industry experts say.

But that doesn’t mean carriers enjoy landing in Caracas. One flight attendant working for Panama-based Copa Airlines, which still serves Venezuela, said the Venezuelan capital is so dangerous that employees who stay overnight are prohibited from leaving their hotels.

International carriers also resent government restrictions that require them to pay refueling fees in dollars, said Sinclair, even when they have hundreds of millions' worth of bolivars piled up in Venezuelan accounts. Venezuela’s domestic carriers, several of which are government-owned, are allowed to pay for their fuel in the local currency, giving them an enormous financial break.

“The government seems to be using aviation as a way to raise money for its general funds, rather than spending it on something that has to do with aviation infrastructure,” Sinclair said.

In 2014, the government began imposing a “breathing tax” in the terminal, saying the revenue would help pay for a new air-filtration system. But it’s their physical safety and security that most Caracas airport passengers worry about.

Now boarding at a Venezuelan airport: cocaine

Sting operations have busted massive shipments of cocaine on commercial flights originating from the terminal. In March, an Egyptian visitor was killed at the airport by assailants who apparently wanted to steal his luggage.

Gunfights between police and criminal gangs seem to break out every few months in the parking lot, including one deadly shootout in February and an incident this week in which troops fired on a thief stealing a car stereo.