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Gonsalves to St Lucia: Fast-track decision

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Gonsalves to St Lucia: Fast-track decision

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KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, June 14, CMC – St Vincent and the Grenadines, one of three main shareholder-governments in the regional airline, LIAT, has called on St Lucia to fast-track its decision to invest in the airline in the wake of millions of dollars in fire losses and a weaker-than-anticipated investment from a fourth government. 
Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, back from attending the Organisation of  Eastern Caribbean States told journalists here has asked his St Lucian counterpart, Dr. Kenny Anthony to fast-track the decision, even as Dominica said it will next week give half of what it intends to invest in LIAT. The Vincentian leader would not reveal the amount of the investment.
“I call my friend Kenny Anthony to speed up the decision-making because he had said they had that under review,” Gonsalves said.
On Thursday, the airline put preliminary estimates of its insured losses from Sunday’s fire at its Antigua headquarters at 35 million dollars (about 12.9 million US dollars). The fire gutted one of its hangars, destroying the oldest member of its fleet of 18 twin-engine, turboprop planes, and two offices.
Airline executives had earlier described the fire as “catastrophic” and a “major tragedy” for the cash-strapped carrier that is majority-owned by the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
In January, Gonsalves told Vincentian lawmakers the administrations in Roseau and Castries had indicated they would consider investing in LIAT this year. 
Gonsalves said that the fire would affect the Eastern Caribbean states “from the standpoint that LIAT is the airline which serves the region and [the OECS] Economic Union”.
He noted that the island-hopping carrier makes 1000 flights to 21 countries each week, including to all nine members and associate members of the OECS. 
“When you have a plane burnt and you have an engine burnt, and you have tools and a hangar, you are talking about millions and millions of dollars,” Gonsalves said.
He suggested that the loss would cause disruptions and flight delays because of the loss of the aircraft. But a LIAT spokesman has stressed repeatedly that the airline was continuing a normal flight schedule.
LIAT has not reported any disruption in its passenger service but its corporate communications manager, Desmond Brown, said Tuesday that the fire had disrupted customers’ internet tracking of shipments on its courier service, Quikpak. 
The fire came as shareholder governments are mulling the type of aircraft to renew its fleet. Since 1991, the airline has been flying the iconic Canadian twin-engined, turboprop planes, the original deHavilland Dash-8 and its successor, the Bombardier Q-400. 
“Without asking [Prime Minister] Roosevelt Skeritt of Dominica, he came to me – he said, ‘Comrade, I know the fire put you all a little bit in hole. I had said in January I would come this year to be an equity partner.’ He said, ‘Next week you are getting the first half of what I intend to put in from Dominica,’” said Gonsalves, recounting his conversation with Skeritt on the summit’s margins.
“I am not telling you the amount. When it comes, I will announce it but it is a substantial sum of money,” Gonsalves told reporters, suggesting his persistence in persuading fellow Eastern Caribbean leaders to put equity into the carrier, a long-time backbone of regional civil aviation.
“I harass all the members of the OECS all the time about this thing, including [St. Kitts and Nevis’ Prime Minister Dr.] Denzel [Douglas]…. But persons come forward at the time they can come … and I understand that and we are all in this together.”
The carrier, which has been flying since 1956, has been beset with financial and industrial relations problems throughout much of its life while ferrying thousands of people each year between larger hubs in Antigua, Barbados and Trinidad and smaller airports dotting the Eastern Caribbean, the Dutch Antilles and Guyana.
Yet, despite frequently earning the ire of Caribbean travellers, the airline has managed to survive repeated challenges by start-up rival carriers, which later go belly up within a short period.