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Time for comprehensive LIAT settlement

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Fri, Dec 9. 2011

LIAT again! That is the most common response to the latest impasse between the Caribbean’s leading intra-regional airline and its employees, which is causing so much inconvenience to those travelling between Caribbean islands, locals and tourists alike.{{more}} It has affected all who were booked to travel, from captain (as in the case of Prime Ministers, not pilots), to cook, and a deep sense of frustration and resentment, long injected by a host of LIAT-related problems, has festered. People have had enough of it.

So apparently have the shareholders in the airline, the governments of Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. They have publicly expressed their disapproval of the sick-out by LIAT’s pilots earlier this week, in response to the dismissal of one of their colleagues, Captain Michael Blackburn, the Head of the LIAT Pilots’ Association. That sick-out has caused severe disruption to inter-island travel, almost exclusively dependent on air transport, with LIAT being the major player.

That sick-out could not have come at a worse time. This is the month of December, a peak season for both inter-island traffic as well as the start of the tourist season. LIAT is normally ram-packed at this time. The cash-strapped airline is badly in needs of the funds which would customarily be generated during tis pre-Christmas season. Not just LIAT, for in the midst of the worst international economic crisis for four decades, the shareholder governments, faced with miniscule or negative growth, cannot afford to add to their liabilities.

From that standpoint, one can well understand the sense of total frustration emanating from Bridgetown, Kingstown and St. John’s. That has led the Chairman of LIAT shareholders, our own PM Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, himself a direct victim of the sick-out, to put in the public domain a proposal for the winding up of the current debt-laden company, LIAT 1974 Ltd., and its replacement by a new company, LIAT 2012 Ltd. with wider Caribbean governmental participation.

All well and good, save and except that the people of the region will want not just a new legal shell, but a new mode of operation. Whoever the owners and whatever the leadership structure, the going concern continues to be the quality of the service being offered. If the new LIAT is simply going to be a 2012 model of the old, then taxpayers will be less than enamoured.

Proper service to customers, including drastic improvement to communication and respect for the travelling public and affordable rates will have to be high on the new agenda. So too must be industrial relations. As frustrated as we are, it must not be forgotten that LIAT’s pilots have long-standing grievances which are yet to be resolved. So too have their other employees and their trade unions. The dragged-out conflict between these parties is making the Caribbean as a whole suffer. It will lead to desperate calls for “competition” for LIAT and support for any extra-regional initiatives, even if they place our travelling fate in the hands of outsiders.

To avoid this tragedy, good sense, realistic appraisal and consensus are required.

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