#AvCablegate: American Airlines crew angered Venezuela by announcing ‘Welcome to Venezuela. Local Chavez time is…’

AA 737-800
Photograph: AirSpace user FlyPHANUK

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 toVenezuela. Local Chavez time is…”

What would have been airline folklore regarding Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez turned messy as Nestor Maldonado Lanza, a friend of VenezuelanNational 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 hadcalled President Chavez crazy,” American Embassy deputy chief
John Caulfield writes. Rodriguez than phoned Vice President Carrizales, who in turn called civil aviation authority (INAC) PresidentMartinez, who in turn went to the airport.

The Directorate forVenezuelan 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 hadjurisdiction since the crew had not officially enteredVenezuela.

Nottaro, AA’s country manager, said that Rodriguez demanded to hear the on-board recordings of in-flight announcements and wantedeach crew member to give a statement.

“Nottaro was able todiffuse the situation by promising to put the crew back onthe empty airplane as soon as it was refueled and get thecaptain and crew out of the country immediately,” Caulfield writes.

Venezuelan authorities agreed to Nottaro’s proposition and the crewleft Venezuela at 11:30 pm that same night.

“American made the decision toturn the plane around even though it meant canceling AAflight 902 out of Caracas the morning of October 1, atconsiderable cost to the airline,” Caulfield writes.

Nottaroalso 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 heightenedsensitivities are in the bilateral relationship when a chanceremark escalates within minutes to the level of theVenezuelan Vice Presidency.”

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