In another five days, LIAT, the Caribbean airline, will reach a significant milestone along a continuing journey of service to the region. It has been a journey in which the Antigua-based carrier has savoured success but also suffered setbacks in an environment characterized by turbulence and uncertainty.
The mere fact that LIAT has weathered the storm to reach its 60th anniversary this coming Sunday is in itself major cause for celebration. In the history of international civil aviation, there were many carriers, of much greater size and with considerably more resources at their disposal, which never lasted half as long.
However, in light of severe financial and other challenges which continue to confront the inter-island carrier as it seeks to deliver on an important mandate in support of regional economic development, the anniversary also presents an opportunity for serious reflection on the future, especially by shareholder governments, management and staff.
Founded by Kittitian Sir Frank Delisle, LIAT began operations on October 16, 1956 as Leeward Islands Air Transport, flying a single three-seater Piper Apache aircraft. The airline has come a long way from these humble beginnings and today operates a modern fleet of nine ATR aircraft, with two more to be added by month-end. Altogether, LIAT currently flies to 18 regional destinations in a network that spans from Puerto Rico in the north to Guyana on the north eastern shoulder of South America.
“LIAT has been through the good, the bad and the ugly, yet we are still striving on,” notes an article on the 60th anniversary in the latest issue of Zing Caribbean, the airline’s inflight magazine. The comment implies that a spirit of determination and resilience within the organization was an important factor that enabled the carrier to remain in the air for 60 years, despite the not infrequent predictions of its demise.
What LIAT also interestingly enjoys, despite frequent criticism from customers about shortcomings in its service, is loyalty from Caribbean travelers. It is an asset that should not be taken for granted. Over the last 30 years, at least three airlines — Carib Express, Red Jet and Caribbean Star –- were launched to provide an alternative choice to LIAT in intra-regional travel. Each one eventually failed.
Even though Caribbean travellers have what can be described as a love/hate relationship with LIAT, as seen for example in the sarcastic remark that LIAT really means, ‘Leave Island Any Time’ – a reference to its reputation for being late – their loyalty remained steadfast. This was evident in the fact that short-lived rival carriers did not succeed in any large measure in pulling business away from LIAT. Nor they did reap significant success in growing the regional travel market which was necessary to support their viability.
Despite its shortcomings, it can be said that LIAT generally has served the region well. It gets us where we want to go, a bit late sometimes, but does so safely which is a most important consideration. Apart from one fatal accident in St Vincent 30 years ago, LIAT’s safety record is otherwise unblemished which is a tribute to its flight crews in the air and engineers on the ground who do the necessary maintenance to ensure that the aircraft remain in peak condition.
The failure of Carib Express, Caribbean Star and Red Jet point to an inherent weakness in the intra-regional travel market. Their demise suggests the market has not developed to the point where sufficient numbers are consistently available to make a new airline a feasible proposition. Indeed, at certain slow periods during the year, LIAT aircraft sometimes fly with less than full loads.
They do so, nevertheless, because their service has the dual characteristic of being commercial and social. Which probably explains why some regional governments, including our own which is the largest shareholder, have seen it worthwhile to lend financial and other support to LIAT. More governments, however, need to come on board, especially those with routes that are not commercially viable.
Increased government support must be tied, however, to improved performance through fundamental changes in the approach to doing business. If every Caribbean government commits annually to providing a subvention of an agreed amount and also to lowering travel-related taxes which contribute to the high cost of travel on LIAT, these actions would go a long way towards easing some of the current financial stress.
Having just undergone a fleet modernization programme and with a new CEO to be appointed shortly, LIAT has an opportunity, which it should seize with confidence, to turn a new leaf in anticipation of a brighter future. So here’s to a happy 60th anniversary, LIAT! And best wishes for the next 60!