Colombia transport ministry accuses Viva Air of fraud

Viva Air suspends operations due to the financial difficulties in Bogota
A man walks near a sign of the airline Viva Air, after the airline canceled all its flights due to the financial difficulties it is facing to operate at the El Dorado Airport, in Bogota, Colombia February 28, 2023. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

BOGOTA, March 15 (Reuters) - Colombia's transport minister filed a criminal complaint against low-cost air carrier Viva Air on Wednesday, alleging flight cancellations caused damages of at least $57.3 million, according to a document.

Viva Air, which said it had no immediate comment, abruptly suspended operations in late February, leaving passengers stranded in airports across the country.

The carrier, which is undergoing restructuring amid deep financial difficulties caused by coronavirus, rising fuel prices and the depreciation of Colombia's peso, is awaiting a ruling by Colombia's civil aviation authority on a proposed merger with Avianca (AVT_p.CN).

The airline committed aggravated mass fraud, engaged in false offerings of products and services, and caused a disturbance of public transport, Transport Minister Guillermo Reyes said in the filing made with the attorney general's office.

Payments for tickets and from travel agencies for canceled flights amount to more than 271 billion pesos, the filing saidd, equivalent to more than $57.3 million.

The airline has so far not sent refunds to the thousands of people affected and continued to makes sales until just hours before it suspended operations, the ministry said in a separate statement.

The superintendency of transportation is already investigating the airline over the cancellations.

Viva Air said at the time it would work to ensure it could restart operations in the future, assuming the regulator approves the Avianca merger.

The potential merger has suffered repeated delays, with the civil aviation authority objecting to the deal last November, before annulling and reopening the process in January after citing procedural irregularities.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Leslie Adler

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.