When her father had a medical emergency this month, Anna Bamario struggled to find airline tickets to her native Venezuela, finally paying $1,250 round-trip to a destination about as far away as New York.
Now, she frets that her parents might not make Christmas in Pembroke Pines. Tickets from Caracas are so scarce that if they buy online, it could cost them $5,000 each — too much for the family to afford.
Across South Florida’s growing Venezuelan community, it’s a common concern: how to arrange travel for family and business when airlines have drastically cut back service because of disputes with Venezuela’s government over foreign-currency payments. Carriers say they’re owed about $4 billion.
American Airlines, the largest operator between South Florida and Venezuela, slashed flights this month from Miami to the South American oil-exporting nation from 35 to 10 per week.
Across all airlines, flights fell nearly 60 percent in the first three weeks of July from a year ago.
“My parents [in Venezuela] have been trying to get tickets for three weeks and can’t,” said Andreina Manzo of Weston. “They call the airlines — nothing. They go to the ticket booths — nothing.”
The problem centers on the exchange rate for Venezuela’s bolivar currency. The government has a complex system that pays different rates for different products and services. Airlines that sold tickets in bolivars expected to convert their money at a rate of about 6 per dollar.
But the government, facing a shortage of dollars, has delayed payments. The airlines theoretically could switch their bolivars on the open market, but with Venezuela’s economy a mess, they’d now pay 80 for a dollar — losing more than 90 percent of what they expected in dollar terms.
As business and the government feud, “the ones who get hurt are us, the consumers,” Manzo said. “I’ve seen TV footage of the main airport in Caracas. It’s empty.”
South Florida hosts the largest concentration of Venezuelans abroad. The U.S. Census estimates nearly 85,000 people of Venezuelan descent now live in the tri-country area. That’s almost triple the number in 1999, when the socialist coalition led by the late Hugo Chavez took power.
The currency problems had already taken a toll on business. Venezuela long ranked among the top three international trade partners for South Florida. Last year, it dropped to No .5 and this year No. 7, census data show. Two-way trade through May fell 26 percent to $1.76 billion.
Now with flight cutbacks, attorney Francisco Gonzalez finds his patience tested.
“I have a mediation for a Venezuelan client, and we can’t schedule it,” said Gonzalez, a former president of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce in South Florida. “There’s no way to know when he can get on a plane.”
Even a ticket doesn’t guarantee a seat — because of over-bookings, travelers say.
To adapt, some travelers are transiting through nearby countries such as Colombia.
“But with layovers and all, it can take up to 15 hours for a trip that should take 2 1/2,” said Amparo Sandoval, owner of Venezuelan restaurant Dona Arepa in Greenacres, who hears customers complain daily about their travel troubles.
Flights from other countries also have been cut back because of Venezuela’s debts to their airlines.
The government agency that switches bolivars to dollars has not paid some carriers since 2012. That’s “willful irresponsibility,” said Tony Tyler, chief of the International Air Transport Association.
“You can’t expect airlines to provide a service if they can’t get paid for it,” Tyler said at a recent airline conference. “So, our call to the Venezuelan government is to play by the rules.”
Some South Florida travelers have turned to charter flights this year.
Charter operator Miami Air International has sold a few more seats and seen a surge in inquiries, including calls from groups looking to develop regular service to Caracas and Maracaibo on its 737 jet, which seats 168 passengers, said Troy Martin, vice president of marketing and sales.
The group charters would sell tickets in dollars, not bolivars. “Everything would be managed in the U.S.,” avoiding the headaches of Venezuelan exchange controls, Martin said.
But that still doesn’t help families in Venezuela that earn in bolivars.
Carmen Elena Hamana of Weston said her mom in Venezuela had to buy her ticket a year in advance to obtain dollars from the government at a low rate. And Venezuela now is limiting the amount of dollars it will provide travelers to Miami, offering more dollars for visits to other U.S. cities.
Some Venezuelans travel to Atlanta to ensure they can buy enough dollars at home to spend in Florida.
“There’s so much uncertainty,” Hamana said. “To travel for a Venezuelan is an odyssey.”
(c)2014 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)