With the Caribbean’s disaster relief efforts currently concentrated on countries that are said to need it the most, a top official of regional airline LIAT today suggested that the struggling Antigua-based carrier should also be counted among the major beneficiaries of hurricane assistance.
The airline’s Chief Executive Officer Julie-Reifer Jones made the suggestion on the sidelines of the presentation of a US$550,000 cheque by CIBC FirstCaribbean to assist with evacuation flights and other forms of relief for seven storm-battered territories, namely Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, St Martin and Turks and Caicos Islands.
But while reporting that LIAT had also suffered substantial losses as a result of the passage of hurricanes Irma and Maria, Reifer-Jones said: “Frankly the discussions about relief efforts going forward should include relief efforts for LIAT.”
She pointed out that to date the carrier had completed 54 relief flights to affected countries that were mostly “unfunded”.
As for the amount recorded in losses, Reifer-Jones said the carrier’s network had been devastated by the recent storms to the tune of over US$4 million.
“We are still in the process of refining these numbers but I would have to say between four to six million US dollars,” she said, adding that “we have been severely impacted by the removal of literally four territories out of the network overnight”.
LIAT was reportedly in the red before the passage of the two super storms last month.
In fact, it was just about a year ago that the chairman of the airline’s shareholder governments, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, said LIAT was expected to record an EC$9.2 million (BDS$6.8 million) loss at the end of this year.
Following a closed-door meeting at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre, Gonsalves had further reported that the airline’s budgeted total revenue for 2016 was EC$318.8 million (BDS $236.8 million), with a small net profit of EC$5 million (BDS $3.7 million) reported up to August last year.
However, Gonsalves had also stated at the time that shareholders were considering a request to provide an additional EC$5 million for the airline, which, once approved, would be divided between Barbados, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda, who along with Dominica are its four major shareholders.
But with the airline’s total bookings now said to be down 24 per cent, Reifer-Jones said today a review of LIAT’s operations was necessary in the wake of the hurricanes.
“We are still in the process of doing an assessment of the full impact [of the storms]. But, I can tell you that it is substantial,” the LIAT CEO said, adding that “we will have to step back and review how we go forward in terms of air transportation for the region.
“The issue for us, and this is based on our experience with hurricanes over the years, is that the recovery at the market is not immediate,” she said.
“So, it’s not just about the hurricanes. What you have to do is to look at the impact covering the next six to nine months,” Reifer-Jones explained, while pointing out that it had taken Dominica nine months to a year to return to “a normal state” for travel after Tropical Storm Erika struck the island in August 2015.
“So, during that time the amount of flights we had to Dominica were reduced from five to two and over time we increased to the normal levels,” she said while highlighting the need for a robust regional disaster planning system.
“We need to have a mechanism in place,” Reifer-Jones said, stressing “these things have a cost on the regional air transportation services”.