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LIAT and regional travel

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In my last column, issues pertaining to the international airport at Argyle were briefly visited. This was appropriate, both in the context of the massive significance of the undertaking to the people and economy of St Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as the 2015 deadline set for its completion.{{more}}

But it would be an error simply to conclude that the completion and operation of the international airport will by itself solve all our air transport woes. There are many other pieces to be put in place — matters relating to investments in the hotel and hospitality industry. Then, there is the competition to secure regular service from international carriers, no mean feat given our disadvantages in comparison to our neighbours.

Connecting to international destinations via Barbados, St Lucia, Grenada and Trinidad will not disappear overnight. That, and our need for inter-island travel in the Caribbean, means that the regional carrier LIAT, with all its strengths and weaknesses, will remain on our agenda. It is no secret that for many Vincentians, the LIAT experience is at the top of their travelling adventures.

It is a heated topic in the discussion of which the value of LIAT to the islands and our connectivity with the outside world often gets buried beneath our frustrations. To add to it, the increased investments from the public purse in LIAT and the leadership role boldly undertaken by our Prime Minister in the regional venture, often leads to expectations of greatly improved service and even some sense of “we not getting our money’s worth.”

LIAT has had, and continues to have massive challenges at the financial, management and operational levels. It is left to be seen whether the new CEO, with his British Airways background, can spearhead a turnaround in its financial fortunes. That is a daunting task in itself, but certainly there are a number of areas, of major importance to the travelling public, which cannot wait for long-term solutions.

Of these, customer service sticks out like a sore thumb. LIAT is very delinquent in this regard, both in its own delivery and that of the service providers at airports like Adams International in Barbados. Ask any Vincentian air traveller, home-based or in the diaspora, and you will find that connecting through Barbados is high on the list of dreaded experiences.

Not just Vincentians, mind you, for similar complaints have been expressed by our neighbours in the OECS. A separate terminal for the LIAT hub has been established at Adams International, but often, the treatment of LIAT passengers there reeks almost of a mini-apartheid system when compared to the treatment of passengers in the main terminal travelling on international carriers — separate but not equal?

Communication with passengers is another major deficiency which leads to frustrations and inflamed tempers. It is as if the airline, via all too many of its employees and those of its service providers, seems to forget that we are paying customers, not some small islanders “bumming a ride”. Surely we do not have to wait on any strategic plan to get customer relations right!

These might seem like minor issues to an airline struggling to keep its head above the water, but customer service is critical to the success of any business. It cannot be ignored because of the virtual monopoly that LIAT has on inter-island travel. The airline is at the centrepiece of regional integration and needs to understand its role in that regard. The problems that we experience at Adams International or VC Bird in Antigua, the LIAT hubs, spill over in unfortunate perceptions of the people of those islands.

There are several other areas which demand urgent address; amongst them the company’s relations with pilots and its own employees and their unions. Failure to address these often lead to disruptions of service, great inconvenience to travellers and unnecessary expenses for LIAT, affecting its balance sheet.

The cost of travel is another area which is having a negative impact, not just on regional integration, but also on regional economic development. It adds to the cost of doing business in the region and even restricts travel for recreational purposes. There was a time when one was allowed a stopover, say in St Lucia on the way to Dominica, but that was once upon a time.

All this is not to any way denigrate the valuable role that LIAT has played, and continues to play in our region’s socio-economic development. Nor is it an argument, as so many advance, for supporting any and every potential competitor. These are issues which can and must be solved. Why not make a start in 2015?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social com-mentator.

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