Amid reports of worsening money troubles and one prime minister’s publicly expressed fears of imminent closure, the shareholder governments of LIAT are to meet in Barbados at month-end in a bid to save the island-hopping carrier, a senior government official in the airline’s base has said.
The Antigua and Barbuda government’s Chief of Staff, Lionel Max Hurst, told Observer Radio in St John’s: “We can only pray that Ralph Gonsalves’ prediction does not come true and that LIAT will be saved. Now on the 30th of this month the directors will first gather in the morning and the shareholders will gather in the afternoon in Barbados and it is our hope that when we come away on [April] 30th, LIAT will still be the carrier of the region.”
Hurst said the Gaston Browne administration had also met its commitment to provide its share of US$5.4 million in emergency funds the Antigua-based airline had requested.
“Antigua and Barbuda did abide by its promise to provide LIAT with more than one million US dollars and we are very much aware that LIAT is not only a requirement that has to exist but any regional carrier that attempts to do what LIAT does will face the same challenges,” Hurst said.
Apart from Antigua and Barbuda, the other shareholder governments of LIAT are St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados and Dominica.
In a dramatic declaration last week, St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves said the regional carrier may be forced to shut down as fellow Caribbean leaders appeared reluctant to provide a cash injection to keep the airline flying.
Speaking on a Grenada Broadcasting Network (GBN) programme, Dr Gonsalves said only Grenada so far had responded with one million EC dollars (US$370,000) to help the airline deal with its financial problems.
“Prime Minister [Dr Keith] Mitchell has put in approximately one million dollars towards emergency funding because he is interested in seeing LIAT remain in the sky”, Dr. Gonsalves said.
But he also hinted that either a smaller airline or a new carrier from a closed LIAT might emerge from the crisis.
Three of the aircraft are owned by the Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) that provided the funds to the regional government shareholders to buy them while seven others are leased.
The Vincentian leader said: “We probably will have to ask the CDB to sell those three aircraft and operate seven of them and then get other smaller airlines like One Caribbean to fly between here and St. Lucia, rather than get LIAT to fly on one of the routes which is going to Trinidad which is not economical to cut it.
“The governments have not been responding so the shareholders are reaching a critical point now and if you ask me, what is likely to happen … there will be a transitional restructuring leading to a closure of LIAT.”
In Antigua, Hurst told radio listeners that the connectivity provided by LIAT, which services 15 destinations” is essential to building a single Caribbean nation”.
He said several Caribbean governments were pumping subsidies into American carriers serving the region, but were not prepared to assist LIAT in a similar fashion.
Hurst said: “The countries of the Caribbean are paying several American airlines… sums of money in something called a minimum revenue guarantee and we see no reason why LIAT ought not to be treated in the same way.”
He also noted there have also been calls for other Caribbean governments to become shareholders in the airline. (BT/CMC)