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LIAT again!

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Time and time again, broad sections of the Caribbean population, particularly here in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) and its neighbouring islands, have complained vehemently about the level of service offered by the monopoly airline in these parts, LIAT. These have been raised in the media, in statements from various sector organizations and public expressions of disgust by government officials. LIAT has seemed impervious to all these.{{more}}

The issue has reached the highest levels of government in the region, the OECS and CARICOM Heads of Government meetings; there have been emergency meetings of shareholder governments and LIAT’s Board of Directors; changes have been made in top management in the airline and each time we have been promised a better deal. All to no avail; the same old problems not only continue to manifest themselves, but at times seem to be actually getting worse!

The latest situation is the disgraceful treatment of the Vincentian national football team, VINCY HEAT, which has just concluded its qualifying stages for the 2018 World Cup. As if the team’s on-field problems were not enough, LIAT added to its misery, an incident reported in the Midweek issue of SEARCHLIGHT on Tuesday this week. Those of us who have suffered LIAT’s late night horrors would have had first-hand experience of what it is like.

The matter has forced the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of National Security, headed by Prime Minister Gonsalves, to write a strong letter to the airline. He has also indicated that the Prime Minister is “very upset” at the level of service provided to SVG, one of LIAT’s major shareholders and chief public supporter. As far as LIAT’s management is concerned, the answer might well be, (not in words, of course), so what? Not satisfied with the level of service? So is Dominica, and St Lucia, for that matter? What are you going to do about it?

We have been writing LIAT, berating its management, demanding respect and courteous service and reliability for a long time. What difference has it made? Hard-earned tax dollars have been poured into LIAT’s coffers to supposedly “improve things”, but all this has not satisfied its seemingly insatiable appetite. It is a matter which rankles the Vincentian people and can even undermine political support for the Government.

In addition to ignoring the genuine concerns of the Government and people of St Vincent and the Grenadines, and other suffering ones like those in Dominica, LIAT is causing undue stress to its own employees. It is they who have to face the wrath of the travelling public when the powers-that-be in Antigua decide to cancel flights, or when there are long delays without explanation. It is LIAT staff, not top management, on whom we vent our frustrations. The company is also regularly in conflict with its pilots and unions. It has changed planes, turned over managers, but our fundamental problems remain; what then is the cause?

One of the challenges we must face is our failure to confront the problem on a joint basis. There is too much disunity, immaturity, politicking and infantile disorder in addressing the problem. Some use our genuine concerns for narrow political ends and end up calling for LIAT to be scrapped, without any viable alternative. This, in spite of our experience with prison inmate Allen Stanford, to whom we wanted to hand our air transport lifeline. Even a current Prime Minister is taking such a line, for what reason, he alone knows.

We cannot allow our frustrations to lead us down such dangerous paths, but must forge a common position at both the levels of government and people. LIAT must be made to serve the people of the Caribbean, to serve them well and courteously and to RESPECT us. That can only happen if, first, our politicians stop playing games, placing narrow national interests before those of the airline and the people of the region. Political interference must be brought to an end.

It is time that LIAT be run as a true private sector company in the airline business and not be at the beck and call of this or that leader or government. There has been talk and talk of privatization, but it is not going to be easy to get private investors to put money into such a venture, given LIAT’s financial history. There are also needs to be met in providing service to the smaller territories.

In short, there are no easy solutions and solutions can only be found if we act responsibly, with maturity and in consideration of our strategic regional interests. SVG has particularly suffered, especially over the last three to four months, but so has Dominica as well. We have to avoid piecemeal solutions and work in unison to fix LIAT for good.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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