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Air transport – Let’s get it right!

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Three Caribbean Prime Ministers, including our own Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, were in Antigua this week in a series of intensive discussions aimed at streamlining the air transport situation in the Eastern Caribbean. Gonsalves and his counterparts, Owen Arthur of Barbados and the host Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer were due to hold talks with the hierarchy of both major airlines serving the islands, CARIBBEAN STAR and LIAT, in a bid to finalize as proposed merger which has been put on the table since last year.{{more}}

One cannot overemphasize the critical importance of this undertaking. Air transport, reliable, safe and timely ones, is vital to the further development of the region and the region’s peoples. It is even more so given the absence of any regional sea transport of merit meaning that the Eastern Caribbean islands are very dependent on this form of transport for goods and people. It is also essential to tourism development for it is well documented that it is the stay over visitors who make a bigger economic contribution to the region than the cruise ship passengers.

That LIAT has survived for a half of a century is nothing short of a miracle given the tremendous odds that it has had to surmount. Over the last two decades, with LIAT’s level of service declining, great passenger demand and expectation, there have been several efforts at alternatives to this much-maligned carrier. Amazingly some of them were engineered by governments which were themselves share-holders in LIAT. None of the regional alternatives lasted, not even the express services provided by BWIA and AIR JAMAICA. All bit the dust.

It was into this environment of expanding travel and frustrated passengers that the Texan billionaire Allan Stanford flew with his CARIBBEAN STAR. Welcomed in many quarters, viewed with trepidation in others and even facing nationalistic regional hostility, Stanford set about rivaling LIAT down to an almost cloning of air routes in the region. We were sold the idea that competition would be good for the consumer, increasing the quality of service and reducing fares. Classic economics. And it did work? – for a time!

The many specials on offer did bring about reduced rates and frantic efforts by LIAT to restructure in order to survive. The region seems destined to get two efficient carriers, competing for the traveling dollar by ever improving service and providing affordable fares. But it was not as simple as that. The multi-island route is no piece of cake and regional travel has its ups and downs. Soon both airlines began to lose money and the much vaunted top-line service has not materialized.

So instead of regional frustration with an air monopoly, we got double frustration from two airlines, bleeding each other to death. Rather than improved service, we had to suffer STAR doing the same as LIAT, and worse in many instances. For whatever reasons, the competition has not worked out to our long-term benefit and we are running the risk of both airlines perhaps having at some point in time to shut up shop. Stanford’s pockets may be deep but they are not elastic, there must come a time when even he will have to say “Enough is enough.” And there is a limit to the patience of our taxpayers, forever being milked by

the government to throw into the seemingly bottomless pit of LIAT. Dr. Gonsalves himself must know that this cannot go on forever.

So that is the context in which the Vincentian P.M. in spite of all noble efforts to fend off Stanford in spite of all his political tirades against him for wanting to undermine LIAT and for allegedly helping some opposition parties, had to swallow the bitter pill and accept reality. It is to his credit that he is mature enough to put the air transport needs of the region above his own views of Stanford and foreign ownership of this vital artery of our development.

An additional side to this is an arrangement/merger with BWIA’s successor, the newly-launched CARIBBEAN AIRLINES. These seemingly intractable problems need an urgent solution; the future of our regional integration process depends on it.

As we wish for a positive outcome to the talks, we must insist that whatever entity emerges is a vast improvement on the present. We will not put up with a merged carrier that is just as frustrating as the two original ones. In addition to affordable fares, much attention has to be paid to the quality of service offered, by the airlines themselves ground staff, immigration and customs personnel.

It is no secret that Caribbean people get far more trouble traveling between our own islands than abroad. There are attitudes involved which do not require any money to effect change. These too must be addressed.

Let us get it RIGHT this time! It may be our last chance!

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