I recently flew on Venezuela’s flag carrier, Conviasa. Aside from my concerns about the safety of visiting Caracas, I was also worried by the fact that the US government has sanctioned Conviasa. Would I be in breach of international sanctions by flying this airline?
In this article, I’ll take you through exactly what I found about what sanctions mean with respect to whether to an American’s ability to fly on Conviasa or any other sanctioned airline.
Before we begin, I’ll make the obvious disclaimer that I’m not a legal professional. Everything I’ve written below I’ve surmised from online research and confirmed in conversation with a lawyer at the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (the organization that handles sanctions). If you want a 100% guarantee on anything you read here, you’d need to consult counsel.
What exactly are sanctions?
US government sanctions are essentially economic restrictions imposed on foreign countries, individuals, or entities, aimed at changing behavior that the US government finds objectionable.
Sanctions alter behavior (or so the theory goes) by prohibiting companies with US operations from doing business with sanctioned entities, in turn making it harder for these entities to operate and incentivizing them to stop doing whatever it is the US wants them to stop doing. Cubana de Aviación, for example, is a Cuban airline that has been under sanction for a long time, which means it hasn’t been able to purchase or operate Boeing or Airbus aircraft and instead has had to use less efficient and less safe Russian aircraft.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a part of the Treasury Department, is responsible for implementing and enforcing U.S. sanctions. A comprehensive list of sanctioned entities, known as the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List or “SDN List,” can be found on OFAC’s website.
As far as I can tell, well over 100 commercial airlines have made it onto the SDN List. Among the best-known are Iran Air, Aeroflot, SyrianAir, Air Koryo, and, of course, Conviasa.
Are US citizens allowed to fly on sanctioned airlines?
But definitively answering whether or not US sanctions actually prohibit US citizens from flying on an airline is surprisingly complicated.
The short answer is that buying a ticket on a sanctioned airline most likely falls under a specific travel exemption outlined in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), which exempts from the President’s regulatory authority any transactions ordinarily related to travel. In other words, the president doesn’t have the power to decide who can fly on an airline that is sanctioned using IEEPA (as most airlines are). This is supported by the fact that when Iran Air was sanctioned, OFAC informally advised that it would not prevent US nationals or others from flying on Iran Air.
This answer was further supported by a phone conversation I had with an OFAC lawyer, who confirmed that airlines sanctioned solely under IEEPA are not legally off-limits to Americans due to the specific travel exemption.
If you’re interested in a more detailed explanation, this article is helpful.
Despite my initial apprehension about flying on sanctioned airlines like Conviasa, I decided to forge ahead on the understanding that the activity is not explicitly prohibited thanks to travel exemptions outlined in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. My interpretation was further reinforced by the case of Iran Air, where OFAC informally confirmed that sanctions would not stop Americans from flying, as well as during a call I had with an OFAC lawyer.
I’m still surprised by how complicated figuring this all out was–and I’m even more surprised that travelers are expected to navigate such complexity or risk breaking the law. It really shouldn’t be this hard. That said, if any readers have information or expertise here, I’d love to hear from you.