Gladys Varela is stuck in Venezuela this Christmas. After scanning travel agencies in Caracas for three months for a plane ticket to visit her daughter in Mexico, she found airlines want nothing to do with bolivars.
Tickets from American Airlines Inc., Grupo Aeromexico SAB and Avianca Holdings SA among others have become harder to buy in Venezuela since September, as tighter currency controls make it more difficult for companies to convert bolivars into dollars. The shortage of greenbacks to fund imports of goods and services led the bolivar to decline 73 percent this year in the black market.
Airlines have the equivalent of $2.6 billion locked in the country at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars per dollar, according to the International Air Transport Association. They don’t want to increase exposure to a currency that investment banks from Bank of America Corp. to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. say will be devalued for the eighth time in 11 years, said Helane Becker, airlines analyst at Cowen & Co LLC.
“I went to 10 air companies and agents all over town and everywhere I received the same answer that no tickets were available,” said Varela, who works at a beauty salon in Caracas. “Looks like I won’t see my daughter this year.”
At an Aeromexico office in Caracas, the Bloomberg reporter was told on Nov. 21 that sales were suspended until Jan. 7 because of a software update. On that same day in Bogota, a reporter was able to book a ticket quoted in Colombian pesos for an Aeromexico flight leaving Caracas the next day.
Aeromexico spokesman Carlos Torres in Mexico City declined to comment when asked whether the company was withholding sales of tickets in bolivars.
On Nov. 19, a Bloomberg reporter at an Avianca office in Bogota was offered to reserve a ticket leaving Caracas, while the reporter in Venezuela was told in an office there weren’t tickets available.
Avianca is restricting sales to flights leaving within 30 days of purchase to avoid currency speculation by travelers, a spokeswoman who can’t be identified because of company policy, said in an e-mail when asked if the company was reducing sales in Venezuela.
Bloomberg reporters also tried using the American Airlines website on Nov. 21 to book tickets. Attempts to buy a flight from Caracas in bolivars as a Venezuelan resident failed. The company had tickets in dollars when the option of U.S resident was chosen.
By the Minute
American’s availability may vary by the minute because of a “very dynamic” system not exclusive to Venezuela, Martha Pantin, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
“It’s like the borders are closing down without anybody putting a travel ban,” Susana Garcia, owner of Margarita Island-based Chill Out Travel Tours, said in phone interview. “We are becoming trapped in our own country because of government policies.”
Companies selling products in Venezuela and other countries, such as airplane seats, are obliged by law to make them equally available to all their customers in local currencies, Hermann Escarra, legal adviser to President Nicolas Maduro’s government, said by phone from Caracas Dec. 17.
The late President Hugo Chavez created currency controls in 2003 that allow the central bank to handpick companies and citizens that have access to dollars at the government-set exchange rate. As international reserves fall, his successor Maduro has reduced the supply of dollars, crimping imports and making it harder for international companies to exchange their bolivars into greenbacks, said Francisco Rodriguez, chief Andean economist at Bank of America.
Venezuela’s economic growth slowed to 1.1 percent in the third quarter from 5.5 percent a year earlier. The country’s borrowing costs are the highest among major emerging markets, with its dollar bonds yielding 11.12 percentage points more than Treasuries, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. indexes. The inflation rate has more than doubled since Maduro took office in April, reaching 54 percent in October.
The delay in repatriating funds from Venezuela doubled to 12 months in the third quarter of 2013 from a year ago, Pedro Heilbron, chief executive officer of Panamanian airline Copa Holdings SA (CPA), said in a conference call Nov. 13. Copa, Venezuela’s second largest international carrier by capacity, has $392 million in Venezuela, according to its third quarter report.
“Airlines have made it clear they don’t think about leaving Venezuela,” said Humberto Figuera, head of the Venezuela Airline Association. “But without a doubt this is always a possibility should the approval process to have access to foreign currency become even slower.”
Bogota-based Avianca has $270 million, or half of its cash holdings, in Venezuela, according to the company’s third quarter report. American Airlines parent AMR Corp. had $608 million at the end of the quarter, according to a U.S. filing.
“The money is trapped there and can’t be expatriated,” Becker said by phone from New York Nov. 20. “It’s a lot of money and a lot of concern.”
Avianca cut its sales in Venezuela to $17 million in September from as much as $50 million monthly average this year, Vice President of Treasury Maria Cecilia Escallon said in a conference call Nov. 18. The company bought offices in Venezuela to invest revenue it didn’t expatriate, Escallon said.
As companies withhold sales, travel agents get up at 3 a.m. to search for tickets that may be available after cancellations, Chill Out Travel Tours’ Garcia said. Two travel agents who asked not to be identified because of company policy said it has been progressively harder to book tickets since September.
Venezuela’s consumer ombudsman Indepabis said in October it’s building a lawsuit against international airlines for allegedly restricting ticket supply. Indepabis President Eduardo Saman declined to comment on the investigation when contacted Dec. 4.
Zulay Rosas, a spokeswoman for Venezuela’s currency commission Cadivi, and Ilse Valera, a spokeswoman for the Aquatic and Air Transport Ministry, didn’t respond to e-mails and phone calls asking about dollar repatriation delays and ticket shortages. Spokesmen for the Information Ministry and Maduro’s office declined to comment on the government’s strategy to reduce the shortage of tickets.
Diapers to Flour
The lack of dollars isn’t restricting only air travel. It’s causing shortages of everything from diapers to flour, fueling the devaluation of the bolivar in the black market. The gap between the official and the illegal, parallel exchange rates has turned international traveling into an opportunity to make money.
The government grants Venezuelans going abroad a dollar stipend of as much as $3,500 a year at the official exchange rate of 6.3, which can be converted back into bolivars on the streets of Caracas at the black market rate of 64.
Varela says she was not planning to make any profit in her trip to Ciudad de Carmen in southern Mexico to visit her 33-year-old daughter, Calina Cabrera, during Christmas. The scheme of making money through travel, known as “raspao” or “big scrape,” works when tourists save part of the dollars bought from the government to be resold back home.
“This is not fair,” Varela said. “I want to travel to see my daughter, not to make money.”