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LIAT– More than just an airline

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The future of air transport for St. Vincent and the Grenadines is grabbing the headlines this week.
The nation’s Prime Minister in a lengthy press conference took pains to deal with two critical aspects of the air connection problems, that of the regional carrier and the old sore of jet transport in and out of SVG.{{more}}
In respect of the former, P.M. Gonsalves reported on last Friday’s mini-summit of four Caribbean Heads of Government in Barbados which focussed specifically on the future of LIAT. This problem is one which just will not go away and is like a recurring decimal with seemingly no end in sight. For yet another time the leaders of Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Antigua and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have been forced to dig in their shallow pockets (in the case of SVG and Antigua, in the rather more extensive pockets of TnT) to come up with millions to shore up the cash-strapped airline and keep it flying.
It didn’t take long to hear the reactions of the sceptics, and on the LIAT issue there is no shortage of these. In essence the objections ranged from questioning scepticism to downright opposition, the scope and depth of the opposition depending on whether it is from the political motivated, the know-it-alls or the downright frustrated traveller particularly nationals returning home for a vacation. Many of the latter have had not-too-pleasant experiences with delays of person or luggage and sometimes their hostile reactions can be understood, if not always excused.
The crux of the objection is based around the feeling that in the case of LIAT we are pouring money down a bottomless pit with seemingly not even a flicker in sight to raise our hopes of a successful conclusion.
One can understand this viewpoint in the context of the need to again and again raid the public coffers to keep LIAT in the sky. There are also those who even if sympathetic to LIAT’s woes, genuinely wonder, in the case of SVG, whether we can really afford this and whether it is not tantamount to a bad investment. Let market forces prevail if the general conclusion in both cases and if LIAT has to go under, so be it, others can take its place and provide the service we so badly require. After all, Caribbean Star, is already up and running in the region.
But so too was the much-vaunted CARIB EXPRESS, with the full backing of our own then Prime Minister, Sir J.F. Mitchell. Multi-millionaire Butch Stewart’s EC EXPRESS came with much fanfare, and champagne service to boot. BWIA itself had its own EXPRESS service too, what choice! Aerial capitalism in full bloom! Certainly that was going to be the end of the LIAT we all were so fond of condemning. Where are these today?
We cannot afford to be simplistic and short-sighted about our air transport options. And in the case of SVG especially must develop a more strategic view of the role and place of LIAT in our development plans. In the first place we cannot afford to allow short-term frustrations to guide our strategic choices. We must always be conscious of our own limitations and possibilities, be cognisant of the fact that we are not a developed country with extensive alternative transport means. Surrounded by water, fragmented as a multi-island state, starved of jet transport connections, we must remember which boots we wear.
Secondly, LIAT’s troubles (save that of its management weaknesses no small matter in itself), its financial burdens in particular, are not peculiar to that airline alone. It certainly continues to lose large sums, but so too apparently is the touted rival, Caribbean Star, which P.M. Gonsalves said is losing some $175,000 per day. (LIAT’s losses are even bigger, he admitted though). Even the international giants of the skies – American Airlines, United, Continental, British Airways, Air France, Air Canada, Al Italia, you name them – all these are having a precarious existence with some facing liquidation and bankruptcy. Smaller, law-budget predators have been preying on their routes with startling success. Several of these behemoths have had to go, cap-in-hand, to creditors or sought a bail-out from their governments.
Those governments, whether in Europe, North America, or the Far East, have understood their strategic interests and intervened to support their airline industries, even facilitating mergers. Right here in the region, the Trinidad and Tobago government, in spite of strong reservations about BWIA’s management and operations, has never hesitated to cough up the cash to keep the airline airborne. All these recognize that the true value is more than just the monetary returns, important as those undoubtedly are. For us LIAT is not just an airline, it is our lifeline to the outer world.
It would be highly irresponsible and potentially suicidal for the region, certainly for SVG, to abandon LIAT and leave our fate entirely in the hands of a foreign private investor. What if for one reason or another, he falls out with or falls afoul of a regional government? Will our access to our country be dependent on a personal whim or fancy? LIAT is of fundamental importance to us in many more ways than one. But it must not be a source of blackmail. Our commitment to it must extend to ensuring that it is run as efficiently as possible and provides a service which places the Customer First. It cannot continue to be an employment agency nor a haven for drug-traffickers. If our tax-payers money is to continue to be spent on it then its staff, throughout the region, must show some appreciation. We are paying customers first, but also financial backers. LIAT’s personnel in Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, wherever, must treat us with the courtesy and respect we deserve. Their jobs depend on our sacrifice, just as our safety and comfort depend on their service. It is time to show results, at the bigger regional level, on the balance sheets, on the customer service-card, but also here at home. Even LIAT’s airport appearance is matter-of-fact, second-rate, not even a board where scheduled services are posted, not even a water fountain nor some bottled water on the journey. Surely 1/2 more on the airfare would be worth it! There is a need to upgrade equipment and intensify training. If we are serious, then we must go the whole hog.

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