IN a report in the Antigua OBSERVER, Prime Minister Dr. Kenny D. Anthony is quoted as commenting on the plans by regional airline LIAT, to streamline operations to cut costs and become more efficient as follows:
“The changes do provide a basis for optimism. I think some courage is finally being applied to deal with the situation with LIAT. Obviously it is not going to be easy for the government and people of Antigua, but they have to understand that governments cannot continue to pump money year after year into LIAT, despite the carrier’s losses. Caribbean people need LIAT badly’
There is a striking similarity with these comments and the position espoused in the past by the now Political Leader and former Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation, Mr. Allen Chastanet, who has been heavily criticized in the past for saying that no money should be pumped into LIAT until there was a commitment to do the very things that are now being done, which our Prime Minister has also described as ‘dramatic action’
In 2011 when he was Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation, Chastanent drew the ire of his counterpart from Antigua when he called for a major overhaul of LIAT’s Board of Directors and for a change in the way the airline conducted business. Minister Maginley’s comments were in essence saying to him to ‘mind your damn business’. Whether the present decisions of LIAT are vindication of Chastanet, I will leave that for history to decide.
In my activities as a civil engineer, I have travelled the Caribbean, having lived for periods in three other Caribbean states. Over the last 18 years, I probably would have flown over half a million miles on LIAT. I have seen and experienced every possibility on a LIAT flight, from being delayed for hours, to cancelled flights, to seeing an engine stall while in the air, to stuck landing gears. Yet despite all these experiences, there is an intense desire within me to see LIAT succeed. Caribbean people need LIAT badly.
Part of the problem with LIAT is that it has been used by various government shareholders as a vehicle to prop their economies and to pay for their airport infrastructure. In that regard the model should be that the OECS and Barbados should have equal shareholding in LIAT, thus removing the external influence of shareholder governments.
While I agree with these changes at LIAT, I also must say that St Lucia also has a responsibility to contribute to the continuance of LIAT. It is unfair that the burden should fall predominantly on Antigua, Barbados and St Vincent and to a lesser extent Dominica. Therefore, the first process of transformation is the reorganization of the share issue. New shares should be issued to bring all the member governments into equal shareholders. If governments do not have all the cash to inject then this should in part be worked out in landing fees and other charges for a period of three years.
The next step should be the reorganization of the routes. A partnership arrangement should be worked out with Caribbean Airlines on the Trinidad to St Lucia route, with LIAT removing itself from this route.
The process of change has started and one would hope that the push back from Antigua would not allow a caving in by the Board of Directors. The integration of the Caribbean was achieved in the colonial period by there being no requirement for passports to move from one island to another, and also the sea transportation systems that existed. I do not believe a ferry system is the answer, it may be part of the solution in the integration process, but the air transportation matter must capture the attention of our leaders.
It can take one 12 hours to travel from Tortola to St Lucia. This journey will have you landing in St Maarteen, St Kitts and Antigua before you reach to St Lucia. It cannot be right that the cost to travel from Trinidad to New York is cheaper than from Trinidad to St Lucia. We have dismissed the importance of the regional traveler and concentrated solely on those from outside the region. Can the decisions of LIAT be the beginning of new things in air transportation win the region.? I echo the words of our Prime Minister – Caribbean needs LIAT badly.