Venezuela's Maduro warns foreign carriers not to pull out

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Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro has raised tensions with international airlines over the more than $3.5 billion trapped in the country because of currency exchange restrictions, by threatening to apply harsh measures against carriers reducing or halting services to the country.

Speaking at a 14 March press conference Maduro said: "Airlines have no excuses to reduce their flights to Venezuela. I will take severe measures against airlines that reduce flights to Venezuela".

To warn carriers against closing down their Venezuelan operations altogether, Maduro stepped up his rhetoric even more. "If an airline leaves Venezuela under the current circumstances, until a new announcement this airline will not be allowed back to Venezuela while we are the government", he says, adding belligerently the airlines "would have to overthrow us before being authorised to resume operations here".

He also says that Venezuela will not fall into isolation "as there are I don't know how many airlines asking to operate [to Venezuela]" and because Venezuela's state-owned flag carrier Conviasa "is powerful enough to step in and operate new routes as it is receiving more new aircraft".

He insists "Venezuela is in good financial standing" and that the country "has always honoured its financial commitments and will continue to do so".

While Maduro's intervention was not aimed at any concrete airline or organisation, his intervention comes after IATA director general Tony Tyler voiced his continued frustrations about the situation. IATA estimates airlines have around $3.7 billion earned from ticket sales in Venezuela which is currently blocked.

"$3.7 billion is a big chunk of money," says Tyler, noting that - while not all this profit - it still is significant given it mark almost a fifth of projected total industry profits for 2014. "Airlines are having to pay for fuel in dollars, so they have to put dollars into a place they get they can't get money out," he says.

Since the beginning of the year many international airlines have reduced their capacity to Venezuela as the government has not provided them with foreign currencies to transfer local revenues, obtained in bolivares, out of the country.

Bogota-based Avianca has announced it will suspend service on its San Jose-Caracas route from 7 April citing the lack of profitability on the flights. A spokeswoman for the airline declines to link the route withdrawal to the situation in Venezuela.