Venezuela's transport ministry has created a commission to look into aviation safety and the ageing fleet in the country following a series of major incidents linked to maintenance issues.
The commission, to comprise officials from private and public airlines in Venezuela, aims to determine the state of the country's aircraft fleet and explore ways to improve operational reliability and safety.
Incidents like last month's hard landing of an Aeropostal McDonnell Douglas DC-9, which ripped off both aircraft engines, have prompted increased scrutiny of the country's airlines by Venezuela's civil aviation authority, INAC. Last September, an ATR 42 operated by state-run Conviasa crashed, killing 24 of the 47 people on board.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior operations official at a private carrier said airlines face difficulties in renewing their fleets due to foreign exchange restrictions.
Venezuela's local currency, the bolivar, is not freely floated on international currency markets and airlines have limited access to foreign currencies at a government-set exchange rate.
"Local currency exchange regulations and officially fixed rates are making it impossible to operate domestically with a profit, at least in US dollars," he said. "This makes it impossible for local carriers to renew fleets, particularly as we have no access to international finance."
The official also cited a lack of funds for the purchase of spare parts, saying that authorities prefer to give benefits to state-owned Conviasa.
However, he added that the situation appears to be improving, with the recent public discussion over aviation safety following the incidents.
Venezuela's transport minister Francisco Garces, when inaugurating the commission, acknowledged the need for better coordination between the authorities and airlines, while announcing tighter inspections of maintenance facilities and suggesting more access to foreign currencies for spare part imports.
However, he warned airlines that they will need to present precise plans of their requirements and that any attempt at fraud by overpricing spare part invoices will have consequences.
Venezuela has one of the oldest fleets and one of the most fragmented airline industries in the western hemisphere. Airlines Aeropostal, Aserca, SBA Airlines, Rutaca, Avior and Laser hardly operate any aircraft younger than 20 years. Many of their DC-9s and Boeing 737-200s range between 30 and 45 years, with some of these exceeding 80,000 cycles which leaves little room for further service life extensions. Only state-owned Conviasa operates some newer aircraft, such as an Airbus A340 and several Bombardier CRJ700s.