The Caribbean’s track record in the business of air transport has been abysmal.
Admittedly, some international experts have warned that even before takeoff, the airline industry appears destined on a course of unprofitability.
The region knows all too well the troubling story. In the English-speaking Caribbean, we have witnessed the rise, bumpy rides and eventual crash of Carib Express, Air Jamaica, REDjet, and Caribbean Star, just to name a few.
Two lone survivors, Caribbean Airlines and LIAT, linger on, but far from rising towards profitability they continue to soar in the red.
The complaints about LIAT’s failings from at least three regional governments – St Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada and Dominica – are nothing new. They are merely grim reminders that we have been spinning top in mud, or perhaps in this case, the air, far too long.
Just ask across the Caribbean what LIAT stands for and you will more than likely hear “Leave Island Any Time” or “Late If At Tall”. The travelling public has almost resigned itself to inconsistent arrivals, late departures, flight cancellations, poor customer service and the occasional strikes.
But as declared last week by Vincentian Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, a relentless champion of the beleaguered carrier and chairman of the shareholder governments, LIAT must do better.
While there is no mistaking LIAT’s role as an essential service for this archipelago of islands for which tourism is the lifeblood of the economies, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that we remain grounded on the issues of efficiency, service and viability.
Still, the Caribbean needs a LIAT. Even the governments that have been full of criticism but empty on action heavily depend on the carrier. We wonder how they would fare if LIAT cut services to their destinations tomorrow. St Lucia and Grenada easily to come mind.
While arguments persist for the decades-old airline to be put in private hands, the bitter lessons left behind by REDjet and others should be a cautionary tale.
What is clear is that the island-hopping carrier, which was never really properly funded from inception, needs a clear investment plan in which all its beneficiaries put their money where their mouths are.
LIAT simply cannot continue to function as a regional ZR that Barbados, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda and Dominica continue to fund.
Today, the St Lucian Prime Minister Allen Chastanet declared his hand, when he announced that his government had already started negotiations with other carriers to provide air service to Castries.
St Lucia unrealistically expects to continue to get LIAT flights, but is not prepared to put in a penny. Shameful. Time has shown us that when all have failed LIAT has remained. The St Lucian leader would do well to remember this.
We are not advocating investment at any cost. But the spasmodic cash injections by shareholder governments when LIAT comes a begging are not the remedy. Taxpayers across the region cannot afford that bitter medicine. Tough decisions must be made for this dying patient.
To survive, recover and even prosper, LIAT requires immediate surgery. The airline’s operations require radical change.
Firstly, governments must get serious about the airline. LIAT is not a cash cow and the imposition of exorbitant taxes and fees is harming its competitiveness. Furthermore, there can be no place for insularity when urgent action is needed. So that if it makes good financial sense for LIAT to shift its base to Barbados, leaders objecting to the move should step out of the way.
The fact is, a successful airline must have a credible plan and a credible balance sheet, set growth objectives and must be held accountable. Shareholders must demand this. To continue on the current course will only result in disaster.