Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves must go.
That is the demand of Robert Pitcher, one of the biggest critics of regional carrier LIAT, who said the Vincentian prime minister should be stripped of his chairmanship of the airline’s shareholder governments.
Gonsalves is also responsible for civil aviation in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) quasi-government, a responsibility Pitcher also wants taken from him.
The Barbadian businessman held a media conference Friday morning at his Fun N’ Sun Publishing’s office in Rendezvous, Christ Church, at which he called for a shake up of the entire leadership of LIAT, both at the policymaking and administrative levels.
Just last week Gonsalves reported that the airline was expected to record EC$9.2 million (BDS$6.8 million) in losses at the end of this year, while revealing that the shareholder governments were considering a request for an additional EC$5 million for the airline.
At the time, he had also outlined a range of reforms slated for the coming months, including the possibility of staff cuts and eliminating “non-performing and non-profitable” routes. He also said then that Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis and St Lucia had been invited to become “equity partners” in the struggling carrier.
At his media briefing Friday, Pitcher agreed that countries benefitting form the airline should contribute to its purse. However, he slammed Gonsalves and the carrier for threatening to cut routes without first replacing the current management team, beginning with the chairman of the shareholder governments himself.
“With all this background that LIAT has, all they need to do is remove Mr Gonsalves from the aviation ministry in CARICOM and put a young guy that his country suffers from an airlift point of view. Make Roosevelt Skerrit [Prime Minister of Dominica] the aviation minister [for CARICOM],” Pitcher told journalists.
Both Gonsalves and Skerrit have been highly critical of LIAT in recent months after passengers from their countries were left stranded, with the Vincentian prime minister going as far as declaring he was not prepared to put another red cent into the airline’s operations unless he started to see major improvements. His Dominican counterpart had also complained about its service, insisting that passengers were paying customers and should be treated as such.
“That came because of his own Vincentian people having to wait at the airport for long hours, flights being delayed and flights being cancelled. It is wrong and stupid for staff to take advice from management that should not be in place,” Pitcher said in reference Gonsalves’ threat, without making any reference to Skerrit, who back in April had written a scathing letter to then chief executive officer David Evans expressing “utter disgust at the shabby manner” in which Dominica was being treated by the airline.
“I am warning, now, that this must stop,” Skerrit wrote at the time in the letter which was copied to the major shareholders.
Evans resigned soon afterwards, and it was unclear whether the letter had triggered his resignation.
Friday Pitcher did see eye to eye with Gonsalves on the subject of inviting the three member countries of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States to become shareholders. In fact, he suggested the British Virgin Islands, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago should also help finance the regional carrier.
“But my reservations is to not to put it under the present management and board. That is my qualms about it. You have got to be able to change from the head because if the head bad the body can’t function,” Pitcher insisted.
The frequent flyer has in the past dismissed the idea of any action by the shareholders against governments that did not invest in the airline as nothing but stupidness. In an interview with Barbados TODAY in March 2014, the local businessman had said what was needed was better planning and scheduling of flights for the routes that were deemed unprofitable.
In that interview he had also called for the dismissal of the board of directors and had recommended that former Antigua and Barbuda senator Aziz Hadeed, Barbados business magnate Ralph Bizzy Williams and Dominican hotelier Gregor Nassief be appointed to the board of the troubled carrier.
Today, he went one step further and suggested that Nassief, himself a strong critic of LIAT’s service, be appointed as the new chairman, joined by Mark Maloney and other successful businessmen from Antigua and Barbuda and St Vincent and the Grenadines on the new board.
Maloney, he believed, would also be willing to put money into the airline, something he said the private sector should consider in order to bring LIAT to profitability.
In addition to changing the board of directors and the management, Pitcher said, the airline should be made to function “semi-privately”, although he acknowledged that regional governments may not necessarily want to place it entirely in the hands of the private sector.
“They will want to hold on. When I say semi-private, you need to be able to put businesspeople whether it belongs to your governing [political] party or if the person belong to an opposition party, and show the taxpayers and the people of your country that you are not politically foolish but that you are doing something for them. You are not doing it for yourself or to gain votes,” Pitcher said.