Travelling by air in Venezuela has been a controversial matter for many years. Some people find it interesting; others find it challenging and most of them just do it because there are no other options. The background tells us that the aviation activity in this country has been something unreliable and most of the times, risky. Bad management, deplorable aircraft shape and several other conditions make people not enjoy their trips just because there is a huge bias that affects customers when it comes to book a domestic flight in an amazing country, such as Venezuela.
To confirm whether this assumption is real, I decided to take the opportunity to book myself on a domestic flight on one of the busiest routes in the country. It is Caracas – Maracaibo. Maracaibo is known as the second most important city in the country. As a matter of fact, Venezuelan economy is dependant on the oil that is under the city’s soil; for which Maracaibo sits on the top-three list of important cities in the country.
This route, being among the most popular, is served – on a normal daily basis – 19 times a day. The airlines that offer their services are Aeropostal (VH), Aserca Airlines (R7), Conviasa (V0) and Venezolana (RAVSA) (RV).
The Venezuelan life-style and its economy, have been struggling for almost a decade against a deep crisis that has created, among other issues, a huge gap between the private and the official parties – formed by those who support Hugo Chavez, the current president-. This social distance has provoked an inside-war that takes place every day at every time. Unfortunately, the airline business wasn’t going to escape from it. Conviasa and Venezolana are both government-owned, offering incredibly cheap fares on most of their routes; while Aeropostal and Aserca –both privately owned-, struggle every day to survive by using all their resources to keep their aircraft up in the sky.
Having recently flown to Aruba on Aserca, I decided to book my trip on Venezolana and Conviasa to have a different perspective and some based criteria on how it is ‘flying with the government’. I must admit that prices made my decision balance towards them, being about 22% cheaper than the closest competitor (Aserca) and 34% better than the furthest competitor (Aeropostal). This difference, for a country that faces huge poverty rates, is too much. In Venezuela, people can eat for tiny amounts of money, for which saving as much as possible, counts even on the aviation business.
Booking the flights was easy and comfortable. Both airlines feature user-friendly web-sites that allow bookings, flight-status confirmations and further information that may be handy for some passengers. The whole process didn’t take more than 7 minutes and right after that, I had both of my e-tickets printed out with both of my flights confirmed:
RV225, AUG03, 15.20 - 16.10
V02020, AUG04, 19.00 - 20.00
On the day of the trip, I had an appointment at the airport’s main building, so I got there some 4 hours before the scheduled departure. Before attending to the meeting, I followed my intuition raised by previous experiences and went to the Venezolana counters to ask about the flight status. Fortunately – according to the lady on duty – the aircraft was already there waiting for the flight and check-in would start at 12.30. That meant that I had plenty of spare time to spend on the meeting and lunch.
After attending a rather quick meeting, I headed towards the International terminal’s food court, intended to grab a bite. I decided to go to the famous T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant that’s rarely empty. After enjoying an always-good meal, I took a glance at the very busy terminal, which happened to be living its ‘rush hour’, when more than 13 international flights depart, 7 of them being heavies bounded to the old continent. At this time, the airport becomes extremely busy and walking is one hard duty to accomplish.
Being almost thrown out by the incredibly crowded place, I decided to go back to the domestic terminal. Unfortunately, the new connecting bridge that links the international and national terminal is not done yet. This bridge will allow connecting passengers to move between both terminals with air-conditioning and escalators that help accelerate traffic with a nice view of the tarmac. In the meantime, passengers have to take a rather uncomfortable walk on the outside, being hit by the typical tropical heat that crashes into CCS every day.
As I got myself to the national terminal, I quickly walked to the Venezolana counters. Being the third person on the line, I got my boarding-pass in less than 3 minutes. The lady behind the desk never asked for ID and gave me a receipt – which surprisingly happened to be my boarding pass. I must say I was pretty amused, as I had never seen such thing in the past. Most airlines in Venezuela now offer fully printed tickets, and I was disenchanted to see that Venezolana wasn’t one of them. Nevertheless, service was quick and perhaps economically efficient. I was then told to go to pay the airport tax and then, go through the security check-points.
At 14.43 I found myself inside the gate area. The scheduled departure was at 15.20, which gave me enough time to wander around this peculiar place and try to spot some unusual events. I got to spot the incoming Alitalia flight from FCO and some usual domestic traffic. Then, some minutes later, I decided to go to the gate assigned for my departure. When I got to Gate 8 – which was the one shown on my boarding pass – I realized that my flight had been changed to gate 5B, a gate located in the lower zone of the terminal. All flights assigned to this gate, are located in remote stands; as a matter of fact, I spotted the 737 that was meant to take us to MAR sitting on one of the many remote stands that CCS has to offer.
Alitalia’s 767 arriving from FCO
Venezolana’s 732 parked waiting to take us to MAR
One of the last DC-9s Aeropostal has got in service
Aserca Airlines’ DC-9-31 wearing the ‘old’ scheme
Now with the new scheme – pretty nice!
When I got there, I realized that my hopes to be in a relaxed place were all gone. Three flights were being boarded through this gate and it looked like one of the ancient wars at the epic histories was happening. People in Venezuela seem to be desperate to board an airplane when the flight is called, as if they were going to loose their seat or maybe get faster to their destination. As a consequence, I decided to head back and wait until these people were loaded into their respective flights.
Some time then, at 15.32, flight RV225 was called and all passengers started to board. This time it was done easily with less hustle, for my sake. We boarded two buses and were taken to the remote stand, where our ex-Air Canada Boeing 737-2T5Adv. YV296T –with a first-flight date of December 2nd 1980- was resting and waiting to be filled up with some jet fuel and us passengers.
Santa Barbara’s 757 heading to the Runway for its departure to MIA
RV’s 732 expecting us at the remote stand
Same aircraft, with a different colour scheme on the other side of the fuselage
A glance at the busy domestic terminal at CCS
Now another sight, but at the International terminal
Boarding the 732
As soon as I was on the aircraft, by 15.39, I went to my assigned seat 7A, located just a few feet in front of the trusty P&W JT8D-17A engines. As the boarding process ended, engines were turned on and we began taxiing at 15.51 towards the main runway. On our way, two flight attendants showed the usual safety procedures and communicated all relevant information on the flight – only in Spanish.
Seated a few feet in front of the No. 1 engine
A few minutes later, we lined up with the rarely-used runway 28 and rolled down to become airborne at 16.02; 42 minutes behind schedule. The procedure was smoothly done with a light right turn followed by a few corrections to head ourselves towards the western city of Maracaibo. We then climbed to FL280 –as previously announced by the Captain- and experienced an uneventful flight.
Some photos of our roll down runway 28
In-flight service began shortly after the Captain established the aircraft. Two flight-attendants served sandwiches and the beverage of choice, with a variety of local soft drinks plus two alcoholic beverages; whiskey and vodka. This time, I chose the usual Scotch on the rocks with the tasty sandwich.
Some photos of the experience inside this nice aircraft
Very good leg-space, way ahead the competitors!
Soon later, the Captain announced descent towards MAR. The procedure was spotless and no-time after; we were over the famous Lago de Maracaibo (Maracaibo Lake), which happens to be the biggest in the continent and one of the biggest on the planet, measuring over 13.820 Km2. A few seconds later, the captain flew over the well-known bridge that connects Maracaibo with the eastern side of the country. This bridge happens to be a matter of pride to the country and is a symbol of the city of Maracaibo. Then, after a few turnings in a rather low altitude, the Captain lined up with runway 02 to perform a nice and soft landing, exactly 50 minutes after we left CCS. Something I recall is the extremely silent engines this aircraft features –at least from the inside-. The only time the engines were notable were when reversers were applied to stop at the moment of landing.
Some photos of the approach into MAR
The famous Bridge
After a few minutes of taxiing, we stopped at the gate. On our way I got to spot other Venezolana’s 737-200s parked at what technically is their ‘hub’s’ hangars.
Images of the ‘La Chinita Intl. Airport’
Being fully parked at the gate, I remained seated until everyone deplaned so I could take photos of the cabin and the cockpit.
Spotless cabin shape
...and a nice reward: a photo of the office
My first trip with Venezolana was over. Overall conclusions were favourable. Service at the airport and in-flight was good, even if not perfect; shape of the aircraft was superb, either on the inside –where I felt comfortable with a nice leg-room and was surprised on how clean it was- and the outside, featuring a peculiar colour scheme and a shiny aspect.
I must say I was very pleased with the performance of this leg. Considering other domestic airlines, I’d give it a score of 7/10. Punctuality, image and technology are yet to be developed on this promising carrier. However, I must say after this sole experience that its one of the top airlines in Venezuela, quality-wise speaking.
The next leg that took place on this nice trip was the way back to the capital city, Maracaibo – Caracas; this time with Conviasa.
After spending one night and a full day in Maracaibo, I headed back towards the airport that serves the city, Aeropuerto Internacional La Chinita (SVMC/MAR). I got there at 17.40, with a flight scheduled departure at 19.00; for which I’d have some time to get to know this airport better. As I reached the counter and asked the lady for the flight status, she replied that it would depart at 19.30 due to an unexpected aircraft change. An ATR-72 would come instead of the scheduled 737-200. For my surprise, two good things were to happen. First, this aircraft had been recently delivered to the airline and was brought from Touluse a few weeks before the flight; then, I knew the pilots that were assigned to fly this leg.
After I got my fully printed boarding pass, I headed to the cafeteria area, where there’s a viewing terrace –which was closed by then- to enjoy the very limited amount of traffic that comes into MAR.
Some time later, we were called to go to the departure terminal as our aircraft had been announced to be arriving. As everyone reached the gate, two agents delivered the bad news –for some passengers-, that this aircraft instead of the scheduled 737, carries 71 people, and that the rest would not be able to board on this flight. As usual, this kind of news meant an ignition sparkle for some passengers and naturally, they went all over the two Conviasa staff members. This, however, could have been avoided if the staff back at the counter had informed the ‘extra’ passengers about it.
A few minutes later, the ATR-72 arrived; and by 19.21 the gates were opened to begin a ‘special’ boarding process –as the staff members referred to it-, being done by row seats; from the first to the last. Regardless of the assigned seat numbers on each of the passengers boarding pass, on our way to the aircraft, the crew announced free-seating.
Once I was on the aircraft, went towards the cockpit and said hello to both pilots. They invited me to go and visit them as soon as cruising altitude had been reached. After that, I got to choose an emergency exit seat, for which I got an incredible amount of leg space.
Right after they closed the doors, a storm began to take place on the outside. This, however, wasn’t enough to delay our flight so we began taxiing at 19.39 towards the assigned runway. On our way to the holding point, the Captain announced the stormy weather and the possibility of catching some light chop on the way to CCS; then, the in-cabin lights were all turned off and we rolled down Runway 02 at 19.44, some 44 minutes behind schedule.
Take-off was smooth, regardless the severe storm that was taking place in the whole western side of Venezuela. The Captain made a sharp left turn and climbed delicately to the previously announced FL190.
It was about 20 minutes after we were airborne that cabin lights were turned on and the crew started the in-flight snack service. This part, however, I had to skip as a call from the cockpit to one of the crew members meant a change in my plans of being a normal passenger. The pilots called for me, so I without hesitating, went to the front and knocked the well-secured cockpit door.
Having the door opened, a fresh air and an unexplainable feeling came all over me. The only lights that were visible were the controls of this magnificent aircraft. Full of excitement, I said hello to the nice pilots and was suddenly invited to pull down the jump-seat, as they figured that being night-time, no one would notice me in the cockpit.
Being buckled-up with the two guys in command of this aircraft, assured me that aviation is something superb. I relaxed and started asking both ex-Viasa pilots about their life-time experience. Both of them flew the unforgettable DC-10 during the Venezuelan aviation golden era of, which they say was the most beautiful thing anyone could do. They carried the Venezuelan flag throughout many countries, being part of a huge family that’s now scattered throughout the world, flying for airlines in Asia and Europe. However, they find themselves happy to be flying together in modern airplanes and in the country they love, being close to their families and beautiful memories of the Viasa-times.
Under strict IFR conditions, Maiquetia Center called to begin descent procedures as we were some 60 miles out of CCS. We began descending from 17.000ft at a slow rate of -700ft/min. Weather conditions were not optimal, for which the First Officer took the approach charts for a pre-selected VOR DME approach to Runway 10. Incoming traffic was warned by the ATC, but as it was 1.500ft above us, it meant no potential threat.
Soon after we passed over the second most important port in Venezuela, Puerto Cabello, we were told to start the approach procedures and descent to 3.500ft. Some 30 miles out of our destination, weather cleared out and CCS was in-sight in a beautiful night scenery. Our powerful ATR-72 – recently brought from France by the same Captain on our flight – was engaged to the VOR DME signal and was flying smoothly straight to the visible Runway 10.
Some moments later, being about 15 miles out, the ATC from Maiquetia Center gave us permission to contact Maiquetia Tower and continue our approach. In a matter of seconds, the Captain’s relaxed voice contacted the tower ‘Maiquetia buenas noches, Conviasa 2020, 15 millas fuera’. Then, we were told to fly straight in Runway 10 and to call back when our position was 5 miles out.
Being cleared to head for the runway, the Captain turned off the autopilot and the First Officer took controls over the aircraft. Flaps and gear were deployed and 5 miles out, the Captain called the tower. ‘Maiquetia, el Conviasa 2020 5 millas fuera’. Finally, cleared to land with a beautiful night gave scene to an incredible landing.
After touch-down, the captain gained back control of the aircraft and taxied to one of the remote stands where a full team of Conviasa ground staff was waiting for our arrival. Seconds later, with the parking brakes applied, both pilots turned off the engines and gave the order to open the doors. That meant that one heck of an experience was over for me. I thanked both pilots for one of the most incredible moments of my life and stepped out of the aircraft with a smile on my face.
On my way to the rear door, I got to enjoy the spotless cabin this aircraft had to offer. I was stunned by how clean it was and the crew members thanked me for flying with them; all dressed in a nice looking uniform with great appearance.
This flight, despite being delayed for some 40 minutes, was a demonstration of the true Venezuelan service. The flight attendants were always smiling and never hesitated to attend passenger requests. The service on board – according to a friend who was initially seating next to me-, was superb. A snack consisting of a sandwich and a beverage was offered along with some candy in a nice box.
Taking away the sole event of me being invited to fly with the pilots, I’d give this flight a 8/10 score. Conviasa is without a doubt a great option that can mean a potential threat to the previously named private airlines. Their service is far much better and the experience is much more comfortable. What they need is newer aircraft and new routes; but seems like that is on the works.
In conclusion, both flights were far above my expectations. Both aircraft were spotless and the service was what is needed for such short routes. Truly an option to be seriously considered when it comes to fly in Venezuela.
For the people who are biased against the Venezuelan government airlines, they should know that if they have good fares and great services on their routes, these carriers will be welcome and encouraged to keep growing; in the end, it’s what Venezuela needs, the recovery of a concept that was lost more than a decade ago – when our beloved Viasa ceased operations and left a huge black spot that hasn’t been filled, yet.
I must apologize for not taking photos on my return flight. As you might think, flying in the cockpit of this beautiful aircraft meant something way too important for me and I was so nervous that left my camera in the seat. This, however, doesn’t mean that these amazing memories will erase from my mind. I thank Capt. Cadena for inviting me in into what it was one of the most incredible and breathtaking experiences of my life.
I hope you liked this different report and am certainly looking forward on reading your comments.