Venezuela Bans Two U.S. Airlines

Venezuela will prohibit flights by most U.S. airlines to this South American nation starting next week in response to similar prohibition on Venezuelan carriers, the government said.

The ban announced late Thursday affects travel on Continental Airlines and Delta Air Lines, while flights by the other major U.S. passenger carrier serving Venezuela, American Airlines, will be restricted.

The ban comes amid increasingly tense ties between the United States and Venezuela with U.S. officials criticizing President Hugo Chavez, who has threatened to cut off oil exports to the U.S.

Francisco Paz, president of the National Aviation Institute, said the action was taken because the U.S. had placed a similar ban 10 years ago on some Venezuelan carriers serving routes to the United States due to safety violations. Venezuela said the U.S. has not recognized the improvements it has made since then.

"We have exhausted all avenues with the U.S. aeronautical authority," the institute said in a statement. "We have been forced to reduce the frequency of flights of U.S. airline companies from the U.S."

The FAA said Friday that it has been working with Venezuelan aviation officials to improve the country's safety performance.

The ban will take effect Wednesday, Paz told local Globovision television.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the decision was unjustified and violated a 1953 aviation agreement between the United States and Venezuela. He said the U.S. urged Venezuela to respect the agreement.

Relations between Chavez and the Bush administration hit new lows in recent days after Washington expelled a Venezuelan diplomat in response to Chavez's expulsion of a U.S. embassy official for alleged spying.

Chavez has repeatedly accused the U.S. government of trying to discredit his government and orchestrate his ouster. American officials deny those charges but accuse him of authoritarian tendencies.

Roberto Pulido, president of the Venezuelan Association of Airlines, said the three U.S. carriers were told of the ban on Thursday and were meeting Friday with Venezuelan aviation officials.

"The closing or restriction of operations by these airlines will ... dramatically affect tourism and business," the association said in a statement.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines operates a daily route from Atlanta to Venezuela. Continental Airlines has a daily round trip to Caracas from Houston and a weekly round trip to Caracas from Newark, N.J.

"We are very disappointed by this unilateral action by the Venezuelan government," said Gina Laughlin, a spokeswoman for Delta.

Continental is negotiating with Venezuelan authorities "to try to resolve the situation immediately and amicably," the carrier said Friday.

"The outcome, however, is not within Continental's control," it said.

American Airlines operates up to seven flights a day to Venezuela, mostly from Miami but also from Dallas-Fort Worth, New York and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Venezuela is threatening to eliminate all but three daily flights between Miami and Caracas, American officials said.

American Airlines spokesman Dan Elwell said the airline was surprised by the announcement.

"American Airlines had no warning of this announcement at all," Elwell said.

FedEx Corp. spokeswoman Sandra Munoz said the shipping company has five flights a week to Venezuela and may also be affected by the ban.

The FAA restricted Venezuelan flights to the U.S. in 1996 because it said the country didn't meet international safety standards.

Venezuelan officials say they have improved standards since then.

AMR shares fell 64 cents, or 2.5 percent, to close at $25.23 on the New York Stock Exchange, while Continental shares lost 7 cents to close at $23.24. Delta is operating under bankruptcy court protection.