Tuesday, September 9, 2008
U.S. Warns on Security of Venezuelan Airports After Inspections Are Blocked
WASHINGTON -- The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning questioning the security of Venezuelan airports, a move that won't immediately block flights but may renew tensions about air travel between the countries.
DHS officials have been blocked from inspecting international airports in Venezuela to determine whether they comply with security standards adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization, according to the department. U.S. inspectors have been trying for the past two years to gain access to Venezuela's main international hubs, including Simón Bolívar International Airport, outside the capital, Caracas, according to the U.S. embassy there.
The Venezuelan embassy in Washington didn't respond to a request to comment. Christopher White, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said beginning Tuesday, security checkpoints at U.S. airports will post warnings on travel to and from Venezuela. The warnings won't directly block flights or advise Americans to avoid flying to Venezuela; rather, they will state that TSA cannot verify that airports in Venezuela have proper security procedures in place.
"Venezuela has refused multiple requests to allow for such assessments, which are required by U.S. law, and the agency is taking action to warn travelers of this security deficiency," according to an advisory the TSA released Monday.
Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, which operates the most direct flights to Venezuela from the U.S., said the carrier believes security is adequate at Simón Bolívar International and at Venezuela's other main international airports.
"We think the airports are well run, and obviously for us, the safety of our passengers, our crews and our aircraft are of the utmost importance," Ms. Pantin said.
It is unclear how the Venezuelan government will respond, but tensions about safety and security have escalated in the past. In the mid-1990s, the Federal Aviation Administration lowered Venezuela's safety rating to Category 2, which meant Venezuelan carriers couldn't expand service in the U.S. and had to work with U.S. experts to make improvements. Eventually, Venezuela threatened to limit access to Venezuelan airports for American Airlines and other U.S. carriers. The FAA upgraded Venezuela's safety rating to Category 1 in 2006, easing strains and paving the way for expanded service.
Mr. White said the TSA isn't alarmed that unvetted passengers will board U.S.-bound flights. The vetting of passengers "is conducted by the airlines using the no-fly and selectee watch lists provided by TSA. This issue is with Venezuelan officials' not allowing TSA inspectors to verify that the airports themselves meet international security standards."
There are 10 daily flights from Venezuela to the U.S., Mr. White said, of which eight are operated by U.S.-based carriers. The security warning applies to four international airports serving as the last point of departure from Venezuela to the U.S. They are located in Caracas, Valencia, Barcelona and Maracaibo.
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