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Regional air transport challenges

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21.JUN.11

We are at that time of the year when air travel in the Caribbean is usually at its busiest. For one, it is the season of Carnivals – in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada — with Caribbean party people and extra-regional visitors alike commuting between the islands to lap up the action.{{more}} Add to that the Carnival celebrations in New York, Toronto and London’s Notting Hill, which have become annual jaunts for Caribbean nationals, and you get a picture of frequent travel. But that’s not all, for there is the long vacation season for schools, with lots of youngsters going on camps and holidays in various islands.

Unfortunately, this year, the regional air transport industry is again plagued with problems. The failure to match all the talk of regional integration with an integrated regional air transport industry, has left us at the mercy of extra-regional elements. It was not too long ago that we had a battle between the indigenous LIAT and Stanford’s Caribbean Star. We have had to bear the pain of lucrative air routes from the Caribbean to Europe and North America being sold to foreigners because Caribbean people can’t resolve our own differences and rationalise the industry.

Now, we have another dispute in our islands, based on the intrusion of a low-cost carrier from outside the region, Redjet, which is seeking to ply regional routes in competition with regional carriers. As a result, the governments of Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago are at loggerheads. So, too, are the governments of some eastern Caribbean islands over LIAT routes.

LIAT itself continues to be racked by industrial disputes. The long outstanding quarrel with the pilots has yet to be resolved conclusively, but another dispute, with trade unions representing LIAT ground staff, has now come to the fore. At the heart of this is the planned closure of local LIAT city offices and efforts to trim staff as a cost-cutting measure. The city offices closure, in line with trends in a changing industry, is not unexpected, but the unions and LIAT cannot arrive at an agreement on the terms and compensation packages for workers. The dispute threatens to bring disruption to regional air travel at one of the busiest seasons.

Another factor in the regional transportation sector is the initiative by the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to make up for this country’s deficiency in terms of the absence of an international airport. In spite of the very hard work put in by all involved, there are still formidable hurdles to be overcome and the date of completion has had to be pushed back on more than one occasion. That is quite understandable given the very difficult and testing international economic and financial climate. It is no easy task to build an international airport in today’s world, certainly not for a poor underdeveloped country such as ours.

What is regrettable is the attitude of those who confuse their political partisanship with opposition to a most needed national undertaking. There are those who scoff at, and almost seem to gloat over, any delay in the completion schedule for the airport. The longer it drags on, the more our country as a whole suffers. To hear some negative comments is painful, as though delays in a project of this magnitude are not to be expected. People suffer delays like these on even small private undertakings like building their own homes, much more a billion-dollar project. We all stand to benefit from the completion of the Argyle international airport and the sooner, the better.

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