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LIAT Again – Contradictory Attitudes by Caribbean Governments

LIAT Again – Contradictory Attitudes by Caribbean Governments

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There is no doubt that LIAT is the airline of the Caribbean, if not by choice then by virtue of circumstance. No other airline serves the number of destinations in the Caribbean, in some cases LIAT being the virtual lifeline between small islands and airports with the outside world. In so doing it has to shoulder a very heavy burden of regional responsibility, a burden which it has not always been able to bear very well.

Perennially, the airline gets into trouble and has faced a swathe of criticisms throughout the region. The latest of these came earlier this week, not just from any media source, but from the head of one of LIAT’s shareholder governments, Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley.

Speaking at a town hall meeting at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies in Barbados, PM Mottley offered the gloomy prediction that LIAT is “doomed”(see story on page 26). Lest we fall into a state of collective panic, she qualified the statement by stating that her prediction is based on whether it continues “under its current ownership”. That ownership structure is one under which the airline is jointly owned by four regional governments, Antigua and Barbuda, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica and Mottley’s own Barbados. They have the responsibility of keeping the airline in the skies, serving the ports of their fellow-CARICOM members who steadfastly refuse either to take shares or to shoulder any part of the financial burden.

But now it appears that not only are there contradictions between shareholder and non-shareholder, from Mottley’s statements there now appears to be serious differences among the shareholders themselves, prompting PM Mottley to state that shareholders “are not on the same page”. Her government and that of the other major shareholder, Antigua, have failed to reach agreement over the purchase of Barbados’ shares by the Antiguan government.

The comments of the Barbadian leader must have raised concerns in regional circles given the critical importance of LIAT to regional transportation. She put this regional responsibility into perspective by saying that one cannot expect the regional grouping to grow without sustainable, reliable and affordable air travel, and that such responsibility cannot be left up to LIAT’s shareholders alone. Those shareholders will be forced into making commercial decisions for routes cannot be sustainable unless they are financially profitable or economically desirable.

The statements of the Barbadian leader once again keep the LIAT debate in the public domain. Over the years LIAT has been much maligned. Undoubtedly it faces serious challenges such as huge losses, controlling costs, upgrading its fleet and managing a huge payroll. In addition there are customer service issues and relations between the company and its employees, pilots in particular.

These have led to clamours from places low and high, for LIAT to be disbanded. The problem has always been who or what will fill the void. Many have been called – Carib Express, EC Express, BWIA Express, even American Eagle – but the sad reality is that not one has succeeded.
Caribbean governments while adamantly against contributing to LIAT or becoming shareholders are on the other hand, not reluctant to subsidize big international carriers, American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic for instance. What sort of contradiction is that when we claim commitment to regional development in unity?

Clearly the LIAT issue must be frankly, not just discussed, but acted upon at a regional level. Already its fare structure is a barrier to regional integration, the high taxes imposed by regional governments add to this burden and the failure to take collective responsibility is crippling us all. The predictions of doom may well turn out to be fulfilled unless we act decisively and in a timely manner.

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