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PM looking to the future for regional air travel

PM looking to  the future for  regional air travel
Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves


When it comes to air travel in the region, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves’ is looking to the future and is giving his support to air transport that is safe, affordable and sustainable.

“I’m not looking forward to the past,” Gonsalves said yesterday.

It was announced last weekend that shareholder governments of regional carrier LIAT had made the decision to go into liquidation.

While others are seemingly more interested in reviving the company under the same name, Gonsalves said other major shareholders are not interested in investing any more money into the cash strapped airline.

“Barbados bore the brunt of it in the last two years or so with about 44 million. They can’t manage anymore. They’re on an IMF programme, they own almost 50 per cent of the shares; their prime minister said that she doesn’t have any more money to put in LIAT, so that’s it,” Gonsalves, who serves as the chairman of LIAT’s shareholder governments told SEARCHLIGHT yesterday.

He added that going forward with the airline was “beyond the current capacity of the remaining shareholders of LIAT”.

“Once Barbados say they not putting any more money, what is to be done, it can’t be done by the other three shareholders, so I have to focus my attention on airlift for the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines and those who are coming here and to the rest of the sub region,” Gonsalves said.

The Vincentian prime minister said he has been in conversation with two local airlines, One Caribbean (79 seats / three aircraft) and SVG Air (114 seats / six aircraft), who have indicated that they can help to pick up the slack as it relates to air travel.

He added that InterCaribbean, an airline which operates out of the Turks and Caicos islands have also expressed interest in having more flights in the sub-region.

And Trinidad-based Caribbean Airlines (CAL) is also looking to expand even more into the region.

Late yesterday, Gonsalves told SEARCHLIGHT that he had received a letter from Chairman of CAL Ronnie Mohammed, the subject of which was: “Caribbean Airlines expansion plan into the Eastern Caribbean”.

“The truth is this; we are looking to the future. I’m not looking forward to the past…” the prime minister said, noting that he has also already received a proposal from One Caribbean and is awaiting proposals from other interested airlines.

He said he is concerned about “… a sufficiency of air transport which is safe, which is affordable and which is sustainable.”

The four major shareholder governments of LIAT are Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Mia Mottley, the Barbadian prime minister has publicly expressed her belief that it is time for governments to step back and allow private entities to play a major role in intra-regional air transport.

“It’s a sad moment but equally, we are not going to leave Caribbean people stranded because we understand that at the very core of the community, is the issue of transport and communication,” Mottley said during an interview on a Grenadian radio station this week. “We have 38 airlines flying in this Caribbean region. Of those 38, nine are from overseas, like American Airlines and Jet Blue and Air Canada etcetera. But 29 exist. Now, it is true that by far, the greatest majority of them is in the Northern Caribbean, but in the Southern Caribbean, you have a number of them already flying and we’ve had a number of applications within the last few days to various countries for others to fly.”

Of the 800 LIAT workers, whose fates hang in the balance due to the liquidation, more than 300 are from Antigua and Barbuda. In addition, approximately EC$94 million is owed to employees in severance and vacation pay, which LIAT cannot pay at this time.

Antiguan Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, in an open letter which was posted on the Facebook page of The Office of the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, yesterday July 2, is now advocating for the reconsideration of the proposed liquidation, in favour of a reorganization of LIAT, in the interest of all stakeholders.

“If a bloated inefficient LIAT could have made a small loss of 12M last year, it stands to reason that a lean reorganized LIAT could make a profit,” Browne wrote.

In his letter, Browne encouraged minority shareholders and creditors to call for a reorganization plan.

“This plan would see the right sizing of LIAT and a work out situation with creditors. All shareholder governments should write off landing and other fees owed to them and the staff and other creditors should take a haircut to facilitate the reorganization of LIAT,” the Antiguan prime minister wrote.

He further encouraged all stakeholders to come together in the spirit of CARICOM integration and the interest of all in the region.

“We should be careful with the precedents we establish. It’s LIAT today, but it may be the OECS, CARICOM Secretariat, or some other regional institution that may suffer a similar fate in the near future. As we collapse these institutions, we collapse the integration movement,” Browne said.