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Canadian family’s harrowing experience with LIAT

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Fri, Jan 13. 2012

Editor: I wish to share my family’s recent vacation experience to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. What had the potential to be a lovely holiday experience was marred by the Caribbean airline LIAT, which is the primary means of transport to and from St. Vincent and the Grenadines.{{more}}

After having spent two lovely weeks bathing in the Caribbean sunshine, swimming with the turtles in the Tobago Cays, and sighting a whale, we prepared for our trip home to Canada on Saturday, January 7th.

We had learned from past experience that LIAT airline was extremely unreliable. So much so that we anticipate and plan for poor service. In the past, we have been bumped off flights, delayed routinely, and transported without our luggage.

On this recent trip to St. Vincent we were booked on the first flight to St. Vincent from Barbados on Christmas Day. We rested for a few hours at a hotel in Barbados and arrived at the airport two hours before our scheduled 6:00 a.m. flight, as recommended by the airline. When we arrived at the airport there was no staff at the desk to complete our check-in. The flight was delayed for three hours until 9:00 a.m. Most frustrating was the fact that the scheduled departure time came and there was no LIAT employee at the departure gate to announce the delay or offer an explanation. When staff finally arrived, we were informed of the obvious, but received no indication as to the length of the delay or the reason for it. We heard through other passengers that we were awaiting another pilot. Interestingly, the same excuse was provided when I travelled to St. Vincent four months prior in August. Ironically, on this recent trip, we met first time travellers to St. Vincent staying at the island‘s newest resort, Buccament Bay. They were considering taking a later LIAT flight home to reduce their wait time in Barbados. We advised them to keep their early flight due to LIAT‘s unpredictability. In this way, they could better ensure that they made their connecting flight. When providing this advice, I did not realize the extent to which my statement foreshadowed my own family’s nightmare trip home to Canada.

Two days prior to departure from St. Vincent, we confirmed our LIAT flight to Barbados as the airline has been known to give away seats that have been booked and paid for if travelers fail to confirm. My husband and I woke our two children at 3:00 a.m. to be at the airport two hours prior to our 6:00 a.m. departure. Similar to our trip to the island, we arrived to a closed LIAT counter and, with other early rising travelers, stood and waited as the LIAT staff casually strolled into work apparently oblivious to time and a waiting line of frustrated travellers. As soon as we checked in, we were told that our flight was delayed and we would most certainly not make our connecting WestJet flight due to the fact that there was no LIAT crew. We waited at the departure gate until it was announced that a plane and crew were on its way from Barbados; however, the plane could only carry 37 of the 58 passengers booked. The airline removed those travellers that did not have connecting international flights. The flight should have left at 6:10 a.m. and arrived at 6:50 a.m.. in Barbados leaving ample time for us to make our connecting 9:10a.m. flight with WestJet. The LIAT flight did not leave St. Vincent until after 8:00 a.m., two hours past its scheduled time. We arrived in Barbados at 8:30 am and hurried to check in at the WestJet counter. When we arrived, we were told that we were too late for the only WestJet flight to Canada that day. We spoke with the duty manager for LIAT, who informed us that LIAT airline advises travelers give themselves 2 hours and 30 minutes between connecting flights. Due to the fact that there was only 2 hours and 20 minutes between our flights, LIAT bore no responsibility for our missed flight. They refused to acknowledge or apologize for the fact that their two hour delay caused us to miss our connecting flight. My husband and two very tired children were left without assistance to arrange our own way home. As my two children sat and watched our luggage, my husband frantically checked with different airlines for a flight to Canada as I tried without success to speak with a representative by phone and email at the LIAT head office in Antigua, or a senior staff member in Barbados.

Due to the fact that the weekend was the end of the holiday break in Ontario, there were no flights available to Toronto until late the following week. In desperation, my husband purchased tickets to JFK airport in New York for $2,000 US, hoping to a least get us within driving distance of our home. We would worry about the remainder of the trip once we got to New York. We were thoroughly impressed with the staff at JetBlue in Barbados who were kind, compassionate and repeatedly expressed their regret for our situation. Their reaction was an extreme contrast to any interaction with LIAT staff, which have never issued an apology, demonstrated any remorse or accepted responsibility for their numerous errors and inconveniences caused during our travel experiences with them. Regrettably, LIAT is the primary source of travel to and from St. Vincent and has no comparable competitor to motivate better service.

Once my family arrived at 8:00 p.m. at Kennedy airport in New York, there were no available flights to Toronto. We dragged our two tired and hungry children around the airport investigating options to get home to Canada. Despite our own fatigue, we were about to rent a vehicle and drive the ten hour trip to our home. However, we decided instead to take a twelve-hour bus ride. Without any warm winter attire, we took a $60 taxi ride from the airport to busy downtown Manhattan and purchased 4 bus tickets to Toronto for $320. Cold and tired, my two children managed to sleep intermittently on the bus. The overnight 10 hour bus trip landed us on Toronto on Sunday morning at 9:30a.m.. Tired, cold and hungry, we were overjoyed to finally be home in Toronto. We had made our Christmas vacation arrangements in March of 2011, purchasing our tickets to St. Vincent for over $5,000, not expecting that we would have to pay another $3,000 in travel costs and 19 additional travelling hours to return home as a result of a LIAT airline delay. We have yet to receive a response from the phone and email messages forwarded to LIAT from Barbados on January 7th.

I share this story in hopes of getting some response from LIAT, and out of concern for the negative impact that LIAT airline is having on the St. Vincent’s development efforts, particularly in the area of tourism. LIAT airline is the island gatekeeper, providing a first and last impression to travelers. This is a critical role, and one on which St. Vincent’s reputation is very dependent. The present public relations and service of LIAT airlines cripples the island’s development efforts. My family looks forward to the completion of the international airport when we can return to St. Vincent without being held hostage to LIAT airline’s substandard service.

Craig and Rose Walker

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