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Currency issues halt plane ticket sales in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Tempers flared at airline offices in Caracas on Friday as Venezuelans reacted angrily to international carriers' refusal to sell tickets after the government devalued the bolivar for flights abroad.

The offices of American Airlines, United and Panama's Copa were all either closed or had halted sales on Friday as the higher exchange rate took effect, adding to uncertainty as carriers try to collect US$3.3 billion they say they're owed by the socialist government.

“Don't waste your time,” a United representative, sticking her head out from behind a closed glass door, told a group of 10 waiting customers standing outside a ticket office at Caracas' Centro Lido shopping mall. “It's out of our hands. We can't sell any more tickets.”

When customers protested that they'd never experience such poor service in the U.S., the agent, who didn't identify herself by name, said “our situation is different than the U.S.” and then quickly closed the door shut.

United didn't respond to requests seeking comment.

Gretty Sivira, a 39-year-old teacher, traveled six hours overnight by bus from Barquisimeto to change the date of a flight to Mexico with Copa after trying for two weeks unsuccessfully through her travel agent.

“There's no solution,” she said with a look of helpless worry.

Airlines are also losing patience.

For the past few months they've been locked in a battle with President Nicolas Maduro's cash-strapped government to repatriate US$3.3 billion that it says is trapped inside the country by rigid currency controls that are a decade old. The situation worsened this week when the government said that revenue from ticket sales in bolivars would now be converted at a new exchange rate almost twice as high as the official 6.3 bolivar per dollar exchange rate.

Weeks of closed-door meetings have so far failed to produce a deal, with airlines balking at the government's offer to honor the debt with a combination of bonds, cash and jet fuel, which is cheaper to produce in the oil-rich nation.

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A woman speaks on her cellphone as she seeks information about flight sales from a closed United Airlines office in Caracas, Venezuela on Friday, Jan. 24. (AP)

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