(Corrects to Avianca will reduce seat space from Peru, not suspend flights, paragraph 9)
By Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS, March 14 (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro on Friday warned airlines not to limit flights in and out of Venezuela, a day after reports a Colombian airline was reducing services to Caracas amid industry complaints of billions of dollars in unpaid debts.
“Airlines have no excuse to reduce their flights to Venezuela,” Maduro said during a press conference.
“If airlines reduce (flights), I will take severe measures.”
Airlines have struggled to obtain dollars in exchange for the bolivar currency as a result of long-running delays in Venezuela’s 11-year-old currency control system.
The International Air Transport Association this week said that airlines are owed $3.7 billion and that some are considering halting service to Venezuela.
“If an airline leaves the country, it’s not coming back while we are in government,” Maduro said, casting the airlines’ complaints as part of a wider “economic war” against his socialist government by political foes and businesses.
Maduro also said, however, that his government would pay debts to the airline industry.
Avianca Holdings, operator of Colombia’s biggest airline, on Thursday told travel agents it will cut flights between the countries’ capitals to one a day from three as of March 20.
Avianca will suspend flights between Caracas and San Jose, in Costa Rica, as part of an effort “to match supply to market needs” and reduce the number of seats available between Caracas and Lima, Peru.
The company’s chief executive said that currency controls had made it difficult to bring ticket revenue worth about $300 million out of Venezuela.
German airline Lufthansa said this month its 2013 financial results took a double-digit million euro hit from payment issues in Venezuela.
Maduro said on Friday that various airlines round the world were ready to step in and cover any unfilled routes. “They’re asking for permission to cover flights to Colombia, Panama, Central America and South America,” he said, without giving more details. (Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Grant McCool)