Leading national airline Avianca (NYSE: AVH) has suspended the sale of flights in Colombia today following the cancellation of dozens of flights over the past two days and mass delays this morning that have affected thousands of passengers.
According to the Bogotá-based carrier, some 8% of its flights were canceled yesterday on August 1, affecting 4,133 passengers, and many more flights have also been disrupted this morning.
At least five more flights were canceled in the morning today, including multiple scheduled itineraries between Bogotá and Cali. The cancelations continued into the afternoon, with the airline saying that 15 had been canceled during a press conference at around 1 pm.
The airline also canceled at least one flight scheduled today between Medellín and Cúcuta, the Colombian city on the Venezuelan border that has been facing a migration crisis as hundreds of thousands of people from the neighboring country have fled conditions in their homeland over the local bridges that connect the nations.
Delays are also rampant throughout the country today. Even some international flights — including multiple flights between Bogotá and Santiago in Chile as well as Bogotá and Montevideo in Uruguay — have faced delays.
Avianca has said that the problems are “due to internal processes of the company” and “unforeseen operational events” in its public communications.
The airline said it is now working on an “action plan” and has advised all travelers to visit a specialized website, AviancAUltimaHora.com, to check the status of any scheduled flights.
At a press conference this afternoon, Avianca officials stressed that the problem was technical in nature, involving the failure of a communications system that has led to confusion. “We clarify that it has nothing to do with the pilot strike,” said Dario Barrera
general director of airports for Avianca. “It is because of a technical failure in an Avianca application, preventing the crew from receiving the information.
Crew members did not arrive as scheduled for 20 flights, according to Gustavo Cadavid, a vice president for the company.
Ticket sales will remain suspended throughout today and tomorrow as Avianca attempts to adapt to the situation, including the move to an “alternative” communications system with its crew in an attempt to fix the problem.
Avianca has also created eight new flights — traveling through locations including Cali, Neiva, Cartagena, and San Andres — and started using a larger aircraft on its Cali to Cúcuta route to accommodate more people on fewer flights. Cadavid said this strategy of operating larger aircraft, when possible, will continue to be used as Avianca continues to try to deal with the situation.
In addition, the carrier has asked the nation’s aviation regulator, Aerocivil, to extend the normal operating hours for flights at some airports.
At today’s press conference, Avianca officials said they are providing affected passengers with lodging, food, and local transportation services as needed. Passengers are also able to make changes to their ticket through August 8, with new flying dates on any available flight during the next month, without any additional fee.
Despite officials stating this was only due to a technical error, local newspaper El Tiempo, however, reported early this morning that the effects of last year’s pilot strike have played a role in the current disruption.
“At this time, there is not enough pilots to meet the planned itineraries,” reported the paper, due in part to the firing 84 pilots as a disciplinary action in response to the nearly-two-month strike waged last year by their union.
Another 53 pilots have reportedly since resigned, and the process to train new people to fly the company’s planes has gone slower than expected, stated the paper.
Though the two warring parties signed a deal to end the prolonged strike last year, the pilots union did not get the level of raise they were seeking, which was the main cause of the labor stoppage.
“Sources close to the pilots,” reported El Tiempo, “indicated that…the relationship of those who continued with the company has been fracturing.”
Air travel in Colombia was severely affected last year when the pilots union ACDAC went on strike that lasted 51 days. Avianca suspended sales for multiple days, and domestic routes in particular faced major shortages, with flights to less-populated cities in becoming much less frequent.
ACDAC at the time had more than 700 members, representing more than half of the pilots working for Avianca in Colombia.
While they did agree to go back to work, the resolution process was full of animosity, and the courts rule on multiple issues in favor of Avianca. A tribunal in Bogotá ultimately deemed the strike illegal since air travel is considered an essential public service in the country and Avianca operates so many of the available flights in Colombia.
Earlier on in the strike, judges also ruled that Avianca was permitted to bring in pilots from outside the country to make up for the labor shortfall, giving the carrier more leverage to stand firm in negotiations.
This article has been updated as new information has become available.
(Photo credit: Avianca)