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Airline Grounding Affects Travelers

December 22, 2006

Holiday travel mayhem struck some 120,000 airline passengers across Latin America and Europe, including about 2,000 people who planned to fly to and from Costa Rica within the next month, after a fall out between Air Madrid and the government of Spain caused the Spanish company to ground all its planes last week.

According to Mario Socatelli,Air Madrid’s director in Costa Rica, some 500 Europeans have been left stranded in San José, and approximately 250 Central Americans –including 100 Costa Ricans – have been stranded in Europe as a result of the fiasco. In Spain, riot police had to remove 80 disgruntled Colombian passengers who tried to block a boarding area in the capital’s Barajas airport, the Spanish daily El País reported Tuesday.

After Spain’s Promotion Ministry had threatened to pull the company’s aviation license because of airplane motor problems and failed inspections, Air Madrid suspended its flights in protest last week. The ministry proceeded to pull the company’s license, according to statements from Air Madrid and the ministry.

Socatelli explained that San José is the Central American hub for the two-year-old company, which flies mostly between Spain and Latin American destinations.

The Air Madrid office in the Torre Mercedes building in downtown San José is the only Air Madrid office that stayed open to attend to customers after the company announced the suspension of its operations Dec. 15. Socatelli said the office received some 600 clients Monday alone.

“The least we can do for clients is provide them with information,” he said. San José resident Elsie Hernández’s two children, 18 and 20, arrived in Spain for vacation a week before the company suspended operations. She said Tuesday she is not sure whether her kids’ return tickets for January will get them back home.

“They said we’ll have to wait and see,” she told The Tico Times after talking with Air Madrid officials in San José.

Socatelli said the company is receiving customers’ applications for reimbursement, a process that takes up to a month “when the company is functioning normally.”

He said about half of Air Madrid’s stranded clients bought their tickets through travel agencies with cash, and should be reimbursed. El País reported that the International Air Transportation Association, which serves as an intermediary between travel agencies and the airline, is sitting on an estimated 7.5 million euros ($9.8 million) expected to be used for these reimbursements.

Another 17% of clients bought their tickets with credit cards, and may be covered by card insurance policies. The rest who bought tickets from the company will have to apply for reimbursement and wait it out, Socatelli said.

He said though the company has suspended its operations, it has not gone bankrupt.

Ignacio Solís, spokesman for Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation Authority, said the government has requested a solution from Air Madrid to repatriate Costa Ricans in Spain and Europe.

Solís said that under international agreements, Air Madrid is responsible for finding a solution to the problem and for reimbursing passengers for tickets they can’t use.

Spain’s Promotion Ministry this week rented planes from other airlines to fly passengers to their destinations. By Thursday, it had transported about 5,400 people –including 11 Costa Ricans – on 16 flights from Madrid to various destinations in Latin America.

Costa Rica’s Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce said in a statement Tuesday that those affected here can file complaints with the National Consumer Commission by calling 800-CONSUMO or e-mailing [email protected]

Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides told Costa Rican daily La República the government is talking with other airlines to fill the gap that might be left in the tourism industry by Air Madrid, which had brought some 25,000 passengers to the country each year.

 

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