David Knibb SEATTLE

Caracas is sitting on applications from American Airlines' subsidiaries to operate into Venezuela because of Washington's Category 2 freeze on Venezuelan airline flights to the USA.

The government of Hugo Chavez is showing its nationalistic face by refusing to grant extra-bilateral US rights while Washington continues - under the US Federal Aviation Administration foreign safety assessment programme - to freeze operating specifications for Venezuelan airlines serving the USA.

Venezuela's Director General Sectorial de Transporte Aereo (DGSTA) has refused to act on requests by American Eagle and Puerto-based subsidiary Executive Airlines to operate schedules between Puerto Rico and Caracas/Porlamar. Those applications require approval outside the existing Venezuela-USA bilateral.

According to Venezuelan sources, the DGSTA is unwilling to grant the extra-bilateral authority sought by American Eagle and Executive "due to this lack of reciprocity".

This is the second time Caracas has tried to block US airline expansion in Venezuela because of the FAA's Cat 2 freeze on Venezuelan airlines. Under a previous administration, Venezuelan aviation authorities refused to allow US airlines to add frequencies specifically granted by the bilateral. Under pressure from Washington, Caracas relented.

But Caracas has a better chance of standing its ground this time because the approvals that US carriers seek are extra-bilateral. If it successfully resists pressure from Washington, Caracas will gain the quiet admiration of other Latin American nations affected by the FAA's freeze.

Venezuelan flag carrier Aeropostal is trying to use the impasse to its advantage. It has suggested to the US Department of Transportation that, if the FAA's freeze is relaxed sufficiently to approve Aeropostal's proposed codeshare with American Airlines, Caracas might reconsider its stance. Aeropostal's codeshare application has languished for eight months because of the Cat 2 freeze.

Caracas is moving ahead with efforts to upgrade Venezuela to Cat 1. The DGSTA has submitted for FAA review a new civil aviation law adopted in Venezuela. Several months ago, DGSTA director Victor Delgado told Airline Business that he expects Venezuela to gain Cat 1 status by mid-year.

President Chavez may have put back that timetable when he announced recently that the Venezuelan air force would start operating civilian flights on domestic missionary routes. In Colombia and Peru, the lack of civilian oversight of military flights operated for civilians has been an issue with the FAA.

Source: Airline Business