In my early childhood, only two airlines flew the Caribbean’s skies: British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and British West Indian Airline (BWIA), others being small and private single-engine craft – and sea planes; and Air France and a KLM (Dutch Antillean Airlines) served the French and Dutch Antilles, respectively.
In the six decades since, BOAC became British Airways (BA), BWIA became B-Wee (and now Caribbean Airlines) – alongside many other private airlines serving the region, but not many surviving the long haul.
Leeward Islands Air Transport (LIAT) went through several ownership changes, from being founded as a private company in 1956 to 75% ownership by BWIA in 1957 and 75% ownership purchased in 1971 by UK-based Court Line; and in 1974 became a fully-Caribbean commercial airline operating out of Antigua and Barbuda.
The last three decades saw regional airlines challenged by ongoing effects of externally-generated ever-rising fuel costs and government taxes, all of which were systematically passed-on to passengers, making air travel not just unbearably costly, but also almost tortuous.
I remember those days-of-old when LIAT advertised a one-price round-trip to all the 23 islands served, within 30 days — for EC $360 (US $132); and Inter-Island Air Services (IAS) charged pocket change for a flight from Saint Lucia’s Vigie airport in Castries to Hewanorra Airport in Vieux Fort; and on occasions flying to Grenada as the sole passenger on a flight, sitting in the cockpit with the pilot.
But with Independence came demonstrations of adventurous nationalism in ways that saw newly-independent former West Indian states establishing their own ‘national’ airlines — Trinidad & Tobago’s BWIA, Air Jamaica, Guyana Airways and Barbados’ Trident, alongside Bahamas and Belizean airlines and Surinam Airways, etc.
Meanwhile, the smaller islands that later gained nationhood (Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines) and the non-independent territories between, had to totally depend on LIAT.
LIAT has long been under internal pressure from within CARICOM, successive governments over the past six decades citing costs of operations, administration and outstanding debts to staff and pilots to effectively cut-off the lifeline to ‘The Regional Airline’.
By 2000, now disgraced Texan billionaire Allen Stanford established Caribbean Star airlines which offered toe-to-toe competition to every LIAT destination, at one time offering tickets at ridiculously-low prices, until it merged with LIAT in 2007.
But even all that wasn’t enough to sink LIAT — until COVID, which again effectively highlighted, in the worst ways, why and how regional air travel had become too expensive.
It’s not easy to fly from one CARICOM state to the next – and it’s still difficult, if not impossible, for CARICOM citizens to fly to The Bahamas and Belize without a US visa.
The COVID effect, compounded by the fuel costs and other challenges by Ukraine War sanctions, have together exposed the region’s naked underbelly in the airline business.
But like with many other instances, the combined COVID and Ukraine experiences have forced today’s crop of regional leaders to come to grips with the realities of the problem at levels they perhaps didn’t realize and therefore ignored.
CARICOM leaders, by their own personal and inherited experiences over the past few decades, know how and why the term ‘hassle-free travel’ has no place in Caribbean vocabulary today.
But they should just consider that back in the 60s, Guyana’s Premier Dr Cheddi Jagan was only able to visit Cuba by flying to Trinidad & Tobago to board a BOAC flight to London, then an Aeroflot from Heathrow to Moscow, then a Cubana Airlines from Moscow to Havana…
International airlines grounded by the pandemic have returned to recent holiday periods in Europe and the USA with serious overbookings that led to costly cancellations that have left millions of travellers sucking sea salt on both sides of the Atlantic.
Virtually caught with their pants down by industrial action across the industry, the major international airlines are now bringing-out the biggest planes to fly the most passengers at same fuel and staff costs, mainly retired Airbus 380s and the largest equivalent Boeing equivalents, to maximize on the opportunities coming with lifting of COVID travel restrictions globally.
Not in the Caribbean though, where the appetite for flying hasn’t recovered from pre-COVID and post-Ukraine migraine-sized cost headaches.
Caricom Leaders got a virtual related comeuppance this past weekend when it came to flying to Surinam for this week’s CARICOM Summit, each and all (except neighbouring Guyana) having to depend on today’s hardly-dependable airline schedules to get them to Paramaribo in the shortest possible time.
The majority eventually smartly settled for a chartered flight out of Barbados to ensure their timely arrival for their first face-to-face summit since 2020 – a commendable move, but one that should not have been necessary.
But even so, some leaders, catering for expecting the expected, left home since Friday, to ensure they didn’t miss Sunday’s meeting in a CARICOM member-state.
Ancient wisdom has it that ‘things happen for a reason’ and ‘some lessons simply take time to learn’, both of which apply to the state of regional air transport today.
It was therefore a fortunate coincidence that their collective effort to overcome the travel challenges getting to Paramaribo in time would have again forcefully driven-home to each leader the importance of repairing the region’s broken air transport system, if regional unity is also to include Freedom of Movement by and for all CARICOM citizens.
It was therefore for good reason that Saint Lucia Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre’s call at the opening session of the current CARICOM Summit on Sunday for CARICOM to stand with and around LIAT drew the positive response it did from his colleagues and all gathered.
Regional Air and Sea Transport isn’t on the official 11-item Summit Agenda, but if ever there was an old problem that needs new and urgent approaches now and today, this is one subject that’s just too-urgent to be treated as a sub-item under ‘Any Other Business…’