American Airlines immediately turned an aircraft around at Caracas in 2008 in order to extricate the flight's crew who had started a diplomatic row because of a public address announcement deemed offensive to the country's president, a cable from Wikileaks shows.
AA flight 903 from Miami arrived at Caracas on the evening of 30 September 2008. As is customary, the crew announced the local time, but sought to inject humour in the fact Venezuela in December 2007 created its own time zone a half-hour behind. According to AA country president Omar Nottaro, the crew member said over the PA, "Welcome to Venezuela. Local Chavez time is..."
What would have been airline folklore regarding Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez turned messy as Nestor Maldonado Lanza, a friend of Venezuelan National Assemblyman Carlos Echezuria Rodriguez, was on board and thought the crew said "loco Chavez time".
There was further confusion of what the crew said, as Venezuelan Immigration said in its report the crew phrased the announcements as, "the hour of the crazy Chavez and his women".
Lanza told Rodriguez, who was waiting for him outside, "that the pilot had called President Chavez crazy," American Embassy deputy chief John Caulfield writes. Rodriguez than phoned Vice President Carrizales, who in turn called civil aviation authority (INAC) President Martinez, who in turn went to the airport.
The Directorate for Venezuelan Domestic Intelligence and Prevention (DISIP) opened an investigation, but because Venezuelan immigration had not permitted the crew to go through customs, DISIP backed off and turned the matter over to Venezuelan immigration, which had jurisdiction since the crew had not officially entered Venezuela.
Nottaro, AA's country manager, said that Rodriguez demanded to hear the on-board recordings of in-flight announcements and wanted each crew member to give a statement.
"Nottaro was able to diffuse the situation by promising to put the crew back on the empty airplane as soon as it was refueled and get the captain and crew out of the country immediately," Caulfield writes.
Venezuelan authorities agreed to Nottaro's proposition and the crew left Venezuela at 11:30 pm that same night.
"American made the decision to turn the plane around even though it meant canceling AA flight 902 out of Caracas the morning of October 1, at considerable cost to the airline," Caulfield writes.
Nottaro also apologized in person to INAC President Martinez and "committed to writing several letters of apology" on October 1.
The humour escapes Caulfield in this cable marked as classified, but Caulfield writes it was the second incident involving US flight crews in the last month. The earlier case on 13 September involved a Delta crew.
The only hint of the Delta circumstances is Caulfield's conclusion: "It is yet another example of how heightened sensitivities are in the bilateral relationship when a chance remark escalates within minutes to the level of the Venezuelan Vice Presidency."