A fortress made of suitcases wrapped in blue plastic stands in front of the Santa Bárbara Airlines counter at Miami International Airport, protecting dozens of stranded Venezuelans who have lived there for the past week.
More than 70 people, from 5-year-old children to 80-year-old women, got stuck in Miami after Venezuela-based Santa Bárbara canceled all its flights scheduled from Sept. 8-12 because of Hurricane Irma’s punch up the Florida coast.
The storm affected all airlines flying out of Miami. But Santa Bárbara passengers have complained about a lack of assistance and coordination that forced them to stay at the airport for several days, eating in the halls, spending what little money they had, sleeping on the floor and cleaning up in airport bathrooms. Initially, about 300 passengers were stranded, but most managed to buy tickets from other airlines.
“We have people with hypertension, diabetics who have run out of their medicines,” said Gillyan de Terán, who was scheduled to fly out on Sept. 8. “We’re in a precarious situation, and we cannot go anywhere else because if we leave, we lose our place in line.”
Every once in a while, the airline manages to open a few seats on its flights and then alerts the passengers in line at its counters. That’s why those who have not managed to board a Santa Bárbara flight or buy a ticket on another airline have had to stay at the terminal. The private airline has been in business since 1995 and is headquartered in Caracas.
Flying to and from Venezuela was already difficult because of the country’s economic crisis and currency controls. Several airlines have already stopped flying there and Delta flew its last Caracas-Atlanta flight on Sept. 16. Venezuelans also find it increasingly difficult to find the U.S. dollars needed to buy tickets for the few airlines still flying there.
Aside from the hardships of being stranded at the airport and waiting for flights out, many of the Venezuelans have another concern: their immigration status.
Juliani Massedo is desperate because her 90-day U.S. tourist visa expires Thursday. “I’ve been coming here since before Irma, two weeks earlier, and there were no flights. All were full and I was told to wait,” she said.
“What can I do? If I can’t return to the United States, it’s their fault,” Massedo said as two others nearby jumped in to complain that they faced the same problem, with visas expiring on the 22nd and 27th.
Manuel Arévalo said Santa Bárbara officials have ignored their concern. “They laugh in your face. They make fun of you, turn around and ignore you,” he said.
De Terán said one airline supervisor told her that people traveling abroad “should have enough money for a contingency plan, and that if we did not have money, we should go to a shelter.”
Other stranded Venezuelans said airline employees suggested that they move to the Miami homes of friends or relatives “because many Venezuelans live in Miami.”
The stranded passengers added that another airline employee rudely told them that he had no new information for them and signaled to them to move away from him. “As if we were dogs,” said Beniamina Di Marino.
El Nuevo Herald attempts to contact Santa Bárbara officials were unsuccessful. At the airport, a supervisor said she was not authorized to make any statements.
The airline announced on Twitter Saturday that it scheduled two “special” flights on its Miami-Caracas route to carry passengers who had not been able to return to Venezuela because of Hurricane Irma.
Those stranded at the airport claim that the airline’s problems go beyond Irma. It sells tickets for two flights per day but operates only one, they claim, creating an almost permanent list of passengers waiting to fly.
After the Saturday announcement, the stranded passengers said, the airline has been even less helpful, because the stranded passengers had supposedly all left. “If that’s right, what are we doing here?” asked one angry man waiting for a flight.
The company’s Twitter Saturday added that “under national and international aviation regulations, when flights are canceled due to meteorological phenomena ... the passengers should reprogram their flights subject to availability.”
Miami International Airport spokesman Greg Chin said that “it is the responsibility of Santa Bárbara Airlines to make accommodations for their ticketed passengers.”
Follow Johanna A. Álvarez on Twitter: @jalvarez8.