Reporter John Otis was looking for a flight to Venezuela. That may sound like a simple task, but air travel to and from that Latin American country turns out to be extremely complicated these days. Here's his story.
A direct flight from my home in Bogotá, Colombia, to Caracas, Venezuela, takes about 90 minutes. But when I tried to buy a ticket recently, none were available. I was offered a flight with an overnight stop in Miami, but that would have cost $5,000.
The only affordable option was to fly to the Colombian border, take a taxi across to the Venezuelan side, then catch another flight to Caracas. I finally land in Caracas — 12 hours after leaving home.
Gaming The System
The reason behind the shortage of airline tickets is Venezuela's whacked-out currency, the bolivar. Travelers are taking advantage of the huge disparity between the official and black-market exchange rates.
Venezuela's government has set the official exchange rate at 6.3 bolivars to the U.S. dollar. But in a country with runaway inflation, this bears no resemblance to reality.
On the black market, a dollar fetches about 10 times that amount, or around 60 bolivars. However, airfares are still pegged to the official rate — so by using the black market, people can buy tickets that cost them roughly one-tenth of the official price.
"Everyone, absolutely everyone I've spoken to who does have the means to do this, is doing it and talking about when their next flight is to Panama, to Madrid," says one British expatriate who does not want to be identified because changing money on the black market is illegal.
He says he's taken 62 flights from Caracas this year, including a roundabout excursion to the Middle East.
"I stopped off in New York on the way for a couple days, stopped off in London for three days, then went down to Beirut for a wedding, then over to Cairo, and then down to Amman in Jordan, and then back to London for a few days, and then back via Miami to Caracas," he says.
The official price tag for those trips would have been $10,000. But he only spent $1,000 — and, he says, he's garnered so many air miles that he's getting executive-class status on American Airlines.
There's another reason for the run on airline tickets. Venezuela's socialist government strictly limits the purchase of American dollars at the official rate of 6.3 bolivars per dollar. However, Venezuelans with valid airline tickets are allowed to buy $3,000 per year at this cheap, official rate.
Once back in Venezuela, these travelers can sell each of their dollars for about 60 bolivars. The huge profit easily pays for their travel with enough left over to buy food and other goods in a country with one of the world's highest inflation rates.
In a recent speech, President Nicolas Maduro denounced these scams, saying they were "bleeding the fatherland" and driving up inflation.
They also make life terrible for travelers who aren't gaming the system but are just trying to get home. Carolina Guzman, an industrial engineer, had to buy a ticket to her hometown of San Cristobal four months in advance. She says air travel has become a nightmare.
But the folks really sweating are Caracas travel agents, like Doris Gaal. She holds up a 4-inch stack of reservation requests.
"This is all the people. They want space. From here until, let's say, April," she says. "And I cannot make it."
I'm dreading my return trip to Colombia, another 12 hours of planes and taxis. I ask Gaal if she can help me.
"If I wanted to fly back to Bogotá, when could you get me a ticket?" I ask.
"Probably February," she says. "I will get space in February."
I can't wait that long, so I start the long trek back to Bogotá. Yet Gaal claims I'm lucky: At least I'm not taking the bus.
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