A multi-million-euro rescue of a tiny airline with just four planes has sparked controversy in Spain, with its leftwing government under fire for extending special treatment to the Venezuela-linked firm.

The row is over a €53-million government bailout extended in early March to Ultra Plus, an obscure airline that links Spain with Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

The money came from a €10-billion rescue fund created by the government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to help strategically important firms hit hardest by the pandemic.

But the move drew a sharp rebuke from Spain's right-wing opposition, which regularly attacks the government over its stance on Venezuela, notably accusing hard-left coalition partner Podemos of being funded by Caracas.

"It's a scandal that's growing by the day and the government is offering no explanation," said Antonio Gonzalez Terol, a lawmaker with the right-wing Popular Party which wants a parliamentary inquiry into the matter.

The liberal Ciudadanos has also urged the European Commission to open an inquiry, while the far-right Vox has filed a complaint with the Supreme Court.

A strategic asset?

In November, the government offered a €475-million lifeline to Air Europa, Spain's second-largest airline, which has been badly hit by the plunge in air traffic.

But Ultra Plus is at the opposite end of the scale, counting 156,000 travellers on 800 flights in 2019, compared with Air Europa's 19 million passengers on 165,000 flights, figures from Spanish airport operator Aena show.

"What's strategic about an airline with four destinations and a market share of less than 0.1%, which was posting losses long before COVID and doesn't even figure among Spain's top 30 airlines?" asked Ciudadanos leader Ines Arrimadas.

For the press and the right-wing opposition, the explanation lies in the relationship between Caracas and Podemos, whose leader Pablo Iglesias once served as an advisor to the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Plus Ultra has its headquarters in Madrid, but its main shareholders are Venezuelan businessmen who have been denounced by Spain's opposition as having close links to Caracas.

The issue has also grated with the tiny airline's competitors.

"We demand the same treatment... it is unacceptable to discriminate between airlines," Airline Association head Javier Gandara told El Mundo newspaper.

But in Caracas Venezuela's foreign minister Jorge Arreaza played down the affair.

"All of this is politics. When I read about the affairs of the Spanish, I laugh a lot... When we kill a cockroach here, it's on Spain's front pages the following day," he told AFP.

Madrid issued a statement saying Plus Ultra offered a service that "complemented" that of "the larger companies" and that the airline's passengers were mostly Latin Americans "mainly travelling to visit their family".

The move also sought to protect the attractiveness of Madrid's Barajas airport as an aviation hub, guaranteeing multiple connections, it added.

"It's not only market share that makes a company strategic, but belonging to a sector that is strategic within the Spanish economy" such as tourism, government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero told RNE public radio Wednesday.

And she insisted "that the entire (rescue) procedure had been correctly carried out".

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