Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne has revealed what he describes as the betrayal by two colleague prime ministers who he said are bent on seeing LIAT’s demise.
Speaking on local radio on Saturday, Browne said when the topic of LIAT’s possible liquidation was first raised at a meeting of shareholders, he was prevented from discussing two possible paths forward.
He said he left with the understanding that another meeting called for June 29 would concurrently discuss the collapse of LIAT 1974 Ltd., and plans to start a new LIAT 2020 in its place.
The Antigua and Barbuda leader said alarm bells were raised in St John’s when they noticed that the agenda that was sent out for the June 29 meeting spoke only about the liquidation of LIAT and the implications for regional travel.
“[There was] nothing about the formation of a new entity, which caught me by surprise,” Browne said.
Certain deals were cut
But there was an even bigger surprise at the meeting, he explained.
“When met last week as a shareholder group … I was surprised that certain deals were cut without even notifying me as a significant shareholder in LIAT,” he said.
“You prevented me as Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda [from making] representation for a new entity at our shareholding meeting, and now we’re having a broader one, you constructed an agenda to avoid the issue about a new entity, but to speak about the impact on intra-regional travel.”
The situation left Browne feeling like Antigua and Barbuda was being suppressed by two of the other three main shareholders.
“I know that there are some who would suggest that I am burning bridges or that I am closing doors, but what would have happened in this case is that the doors were actually shut in the face of Antigua and Barbuda,” he said.
Prepared to go it alone
The Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister said the presentation he was prevented from making was to request two things.
“One, to allow us a 30-day period to reorganize LIAT, and in the unlikely event that we failed, then we are asking for the creation of a new LIAT 2020,” he explained.
“I don’t know that they can just decide to liquidate LIAT without taking into consideration the concerns and the request of a significant minority stakeholder in Antigua and Barbuda.
“We have already indicated to the existing shareholders that we’re not seeking any financial commitments from them, and if Antigua and Barbuda has to go it alone, even though that is not our desire, to create a new LIAT 2020, we’re prepared to do so in order to save the brand,” Browne added.
COVID has given us an opportunity
Browne admitted that LIAT was bloated and significant cuts were needed to right-size the company and make it efficient. And he said this was the opportune time to do so.
“COVID has given us the opportunity to deal with LIAT once and for all, to get it right. It should not be an opportunity to preside over the demise of LIAT and to bury it. Antigua does not accept that,” Browne said.
“It is an opportunity for us to go to the staff and say to them that you have no choice, you have to take a haircut.”
Ready to read the riot act to LIAT staff
He said this was not the time for employees to be making “big fat chat” about not being willing to take a reduction in pay to save the airline.
“I hear one of the pilots saying that he doesn’t have any hair on his head to take a cut. Well you either cut your hair or cut your head, take your pick,” Browne said.
“So we are in a position at this point to read the riot act to the staff at LIAT and to say to them that the survivability of this institution requires your full cooperation, and if they don’t cooperate, we start a new entity.
“We are not trying to preside over a bloated LIAT. We are not trying to maintain the status quo. When we say reorganization we’re talking about deep cuts right across the board. Even governments would be required to give up all of the taxes and fees that are owed to them.”
You can’t just lock me out
Browne said the latter was mentioned to shareholders governments, but never entertained.
“So for me, I saw it as a betrayal of the corporation that existed among the shareholders of LIAT. And I’m not saying this to create any friction, but I’m just talking truth to power,” he said.
“At the end of the day, the Antigua and Barbuda people, the Caribbean people, we’re all victims in what transpired within the last few days. [But] I don’t believe, notwithstanding that we have some differences at this point, that consensus is beyond us. And that’s what I’m pushing for.
“I want a conversation. You can’t just lock me out and say you’re going to liquidate, I don’t accept that. That’s a form of disrespect that I am going to fight.”
The LIAT brand should never die
The Prime Minister said what the region is witnessing is the deliberate dismantling of the air transport sector in Antigua and Barbuda by collapsing LIAT.
“LIAT is literally our air transport sector here in Antigua and Barbuda and if you destroy that you destroy our air transport sector. It means that we can no longer export this service to CARICOM,” he said.
“That brand should never die. LIAT is the Caribbean and the Caribbean is LIAT, no matter what you think about it.
“If ultimately my ideas cannot work and I have to relent then I will relent. I am not an unreasonable person.”
‘All kinds of little rinky dinky airlines’
The Antiguan leader is also warning the region to be careful about the fragmentation of the airline industry in the Caribbean.
“I am hearing some argument that all kinds of little rinky dinky airlines within the region can take the palace of LIAT. We must understand that a consolidated, efficient, sub-regional airline is far better for our region than having a fragmented aviation sector with several small and essentially non-viable airlines. There’s no space for them and that is why they keep coming and dying,” he said.
“LIAT should not become a prey for any rinky dinky airline. If we’re not careful, the decentralization that I see taking place here and which some Heads are pushing for, you re going to end up with a whole heap of rinky dinky airlines, small rinky dinky airlines, and you will see a reduction in service quality and you will also see a reduction in passenger comfort and safety.”
Browne noted that one airline that has been earmarked as a replacement for LIAT has had “about two or three accidents” since it came into the market.