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Caribbean Travel: The Horrors – Part 2

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There is no regional institution or service provider which attracts more daily public comment than the sole truly regional air carrier LIAT. In itself, this speaks volumes of the crucial role that the airline plays in the lives of the region’s people and how much impact it has on the conduct of affairs at a personal, business and governmental level in the region.{{more}}

What is unfortunate is that this high volume of comment tends to be more negative than positive. There is reason for this, of course, as we shall see, but while we are always quick to be critical, the same enthusiasm is not displayed when LIAT gets it right. One natural contributor to this string of criticism resides in the fact that the carrier is owned by regional governments and state-owned agencies in the Caribbean do not generally have a good reputation, deservedly or not, for efficiency in their operations.

Regional integration is a necessity in these times, but as our experience in the Caribbean reveals, and others, in Europe for example, it is not easy to achieve and even harder to maintain. LIAT is one outstanding example of regional cooperation, especially in the context of a multi-state-owned operation in what is overwhelmingly a private sector business. It serves the region faithfully, with all its deficiencies, of course, but it provides the only real region-wide travel link and its safety record, unlike its punctuality, is impressive by any standards.

Yet, in spite of our heavy reliance on this airline for air services, there are governments in the Eastern Caribbean, in particular, which either refuse to or are reluctant to invest money in the airline. We can justly complain about its debts and losses, but how could we justify not contributing, when some of the same governments took their taxpayers’ funds to subsidize big international air carriers to provide services to their countries?

Some governments, including LIAT shareholders, even went further by encouraging rival carriers, in the name of competition for LIAT. There were those who went further, during the short-lived “reign” of convicted swindler Allen Stanford, advocating that governments turn over LIAT for him to run as part of his Caribbean Express empire. Where would we have been now when Stanford is in jail, his empire a fading memory of the past?

It is easy to be critical, to lash out in frustration, (and there is perhaps no more frustrating experience than travel by LIAT), but there are serious challenges in the way of operating a regional airline. The constant island-hopping, cost-overruns, delays, all add up to a nightmarish experience not only for travellers, but also for those who own, operate and manage the airline.

But the biggest “beef” of all is with the quality of service offered by the airline, especially at its two hubs, Barbados and Antigua. The attitude displayed by some workers employed at these hubs towards passengers, especially from the so-called “small” islands, can vary from indifferent to downright rude. In a business already fraught with all kinds of frustrations, this is detrimental to the public image.

One particular deficiency, throughout all of the airline’s operations is the failure to provide adequate information. One is left to get the impression that this is an option, not a requirement. Some workers, on the ground and in the air (pilots), make it their business to give regular updates when they can. Some pilots even give travellers information on views from the planes, making for a more interesting flight; but too often one is stuck in airports, inside departure lounges at that, with no information as to when flights would arrive or depart. Surely this can be corrected without affecting LIAT’s balance sheets.

Whatever the overall financial and larger operational difficulties, LIAT has a responsibility to get its service right. It is too important to the region for anything other than top-quality, courteous service to be its staple diet.

(Next: Airports, immigration and customs)

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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