Today in aviation: VIASA’s first commercial flight
DALLAS – Today in Aviation, Venezuelan flag carrier VIASA (VA) made its first commercial flight hand-in-hand with KLM in 1961. The flight to Amsterdam departed Caracas with stopovers in Santa María (Azores), Lisbon, Madrid and Roma. As in the rest of the world, the golden age of travel had just begun for Venezuelan commercial aviation.
On the carrier’s return trip, flights would continue beyond Caracas to Curaçao (CUR), Bogotá (BOG) and Lima (LIM). This international operation allowed Caracas-Simón Bolívar International Airport (CCS) to become the main gateway to the Americas, a status that remained unchallenged until VIASA’s demise.
Venezolana Internacional de Aviación Sociedad Anónima, or VIASA, was the flag carrier of the country between 1960 and 1997. Its headquarters were in Caracas, at the Viasa Tower (Torre Viasa). During its 37-year lifespan, the airline’s subsequent public and private management was unable to move the airline’s continuity forward.
The airline was established in November 1960, nationalized in 1975 due to financial difficulties and reprivatized in 1991, with Iberia (IB) holding the majority stake. The company went into liquidation in January 1997 after ceasing its activities.
Gateway to the Americas: The Early Years of VIASA
The Venezuelan government envisioned VIASA in 1959 as a new company that could act as the flag carrier of the country and operate independently of government interference.
In August 1959, Línea Aeropostal Venezolana (LAV) and AVENSA began exploring the possibility of creating a new international airline. In April 1960, LAV proposed a 50-50 public and private company. Negotiations continued and two months later the two airlines agreed to create a new carrier.
The new carrier would eventually take over the assets of LAV’s international division, as well as an order for two Convair 880-22Ms for AVENSA. LAV subscribed 55% of the shares and AVENSA the remaining 45%. The capital raised was VEB 12 million, or approximately US$3.6 million in cash at the time (approximately US$32 million in 2022 figures).
The airline signed an agreement with KLM in early 1961 to operate a Douglas DC-8 on behalf of VA, with plans to begin service to Europe in April that year; KLM maintained the relationship with VA for another 24 years. Additionally, AVENSA transferred two Douglas DC-6Bs to VA the same year. As for the Convair 880s, the airline mainly used this type on routes to North America.
In 1961, the airline became the 89th member of the International Air Transport Organization (IATA). In 1963, VA entered into a commercial agreement with IB and KLM for operations in the mid-Atlantic region, spearheading Caracas and CCS as the hub of the Americas.
Since its inception, VIASA has been a model of good management, generating profits every year. Due to fuel costs and labor disputes, Viasa recorded its first-ever loss for the fiscal year October 1975 to September 1976. Yet the airline’s success up to that point was an example to the world of how a joint private/public airline might operate.
Nationalization, Privatization, Fall
VIASA was nationalized by the government in 1975 and the airline’s decline quickly began. The fall was initially cushioned as Venezuela’s strong economy was driven by high oil revenues and the state was ready to inject cash to cover the carrier’s mounting losses.
Thus, during the last years preceding the privatization of the airline, the Venezuelan government kept VIASA on life support. In 1990, the government put the airline in competition, inviting North American, European and Asian airlines to invest. But there were no offers for the debt-ridden airline.
Finally, in June 1991, IB and KLM were approved as bidders in the privatization process: the first, an old ally, joined forces with Banco Provincial de Venezuela, and the second joined forces with Northwest Airlines and four other local entities. Grupo Iberia won the tender.
As it had done with Aerolineas Argentinas (AR) and the Chilean LADECO (UC), the IB planned to develop a regional hub in Caracas which would channel Iberia’s flights to its main hub in Madrid. At that time, IB was a public airline, and it soon became apparent that it lacked the expertise to solve VIASA’s problems, unable during the six years it controlled the carrier to change the fate of VA.
Iberia chose to suspend VA’s operations on January 23, 1997, and in March the Venezuelan government and IB decided to liquidate the airline. The last VIASA flight was VA3735, a DC-10 charter flight from Billund (BLL) to Porlamar.
VIASA had become a symbol of Venezuela’s stability and success and a flag bearer to be proud of. Other than that, the VA is credited with being the first all-jet airline in the world and the first widebody operator in Latin America.
Featured Image: VIASA’s first DC-10-30, the YV-137C, taken during a test flight prior to delivery. Photo Courtesy: John Livesey, The Jon Proctor Collection.
For all the right and wrong reasons, Venezuela’s best-known carrier is often referred to as a case study. To read the full VIASA story, subscribe to our digital suite or get the March/April issue of Airway Magazine to read, “VIASA: the mechanical orange of Venezuela”, by Roberto Leiro.