EDITORIAL: Now seems time for more hands in LIAT
LIAT’s three shareholder governments – led by Barbados, the largest – are at a crossroads.
Competition from a new kid on the block and from old rivals, who not so long ago appeared ready to form an alliance, have added to the struggling LIAT’s challenges of ever rising fuel prices, costs of maintaining an aging fleet, and the never-ending industrial tensions that have all contributed to mounting losses year after year.
Last Monday, at two meetings convened in Barbados, host Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, Dr Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda knocked heads with the management and board of the airline and representatives of the ten unions that, for the most part, have had a contentious relationship with the hierarchy.
The discussion centred on a strategic plan for the struggling airline: the whats, hows, and whens of a new direction for a carrier serving the region for more than half a century.
LIAT has for a long time discussed offloading unprofitable routes; its payroll trimming continues in phases, although resisted by the unions; fleet expansion and renewal is a process that is in train but has not reached conclusion; and there have been repeated promises of better communication between unions and management.
Also not novel, but even more significant now as shareholders and management battle to keep planes emblazoned with the familiar blue, orange and yellow logo in the skies, is the acknowledgment the region needs a LIAT.
Chairman Dr Jean Holder put it into context succinctly at the end of Monday’s meetings: “If LIAT closed tomorrow, people that never thought of it would suddenly come to realize what LIAT actually does in transporting people across the network, right, left and centre across the Caribbean.”
Yet, even with 21 countries able to benefit from LIAT’s 110 daily flights, only three governments continue to bear the bulk of the burden.
Dominica and St Lucia have both signalled interest in increasing their minimal shares, but that is yet to be formalized to translate into any tangible benefits for the airline.
What is perhaps most exasperating for the parties pumping capital into the region’s largest carrier of passengers is that among those “drinking milk through the fence but don’t want to buy the cow”, to borrow from Caribbean Development Bank president Dr Warren Smith, are countries benefiting from routes that are unprofitable but are sustained because of a social responsibility.
Perhaps the time has come for LIAT to play tough guy with those who want to drink the milk but refuse to offer a cent to ensure the cow remains up to the task of producing it.