NOT ALL BLACK AND WHITE: Chastanet hints at Liat answer
HE HAS long been a vocal critic of LIAT, and when he became St Lucia’s prime minister in early June, Allen Chastanet quickly made it known that the airline would not be getting, as he termed it, one red cent from St Lucia.
In July, Mr Chastanet, told a regional newspaper that that St Lucia was unhappy with the current situation with regional transportation in general, and was hoping to announce “some alternatives, and a way to solve the problem”.
LIAT’s main problem has always been that any time you try to get it to run on more commercial lines, politicians step in and force a return to the status quo, like flying unprofitable routes, or getting top brass fired for trying to staunch the financial bleeding.
Recently, retired Barbadian banker Horace Cobham said that if governments wanted LIAT to fly unprofitable routes they should have to help pay the cost, and St Vincent’s PM Dr Ralph Gonsalves complained that a board-approved plan to relocate most of the fleet to Barbados and T&T, leaving only two planes in Antigua, had not yet been implemented by the executive, over a year after the decision was taken.
So the first thing I asked Mr Chastanet when I saw him last week was the LIAT question.
He told me his administration was working on a framework for St Lucia which would encourage new investment in the country, and – as I thought I heard it – to set the stage for the launch of a new private sector-owned airline.
“I think we need to open up the airline industry to competition – but legitimately do so, and we’ve never had that in the OECS. The civil aviation authority has always been an impediment, which means that all the airlines have been using the same types of planes. (But) given the type of route structures that we have it’s impossible to believe that you’re going to have one plane that can service all the routes,” he said.
Chastanet knows his planes. He added, in summary, “So I personally believe that the only way that the full market is going to be served is by allowing competition to come in, so St Lucia is looking to make some decisions in the near future which we will announce soon, before the end of the year, that we believe will solve some of the problems as it deals with St Lucia, but you know, look, the majority of countries in the region have voted against LIAT. LIAT used to have 27 shareholders, it now has three. That’s a huge statement.”
Thinking I was seeing a headline that proclaimed the launch of a new airline, I asked the PM if he was hinting that his government would be starting a St Lucian airline. His reply was solid, but somehow I thought he felt he had to do a little damage control.
He said, “No, I said I’m going to create the environment to allow for more competition. I don’t necessarily believe that we want to get into the airline business.”
But then, I asked myself, why all that detail about the types of planes you would need, and making some announcement soon, and so I asked just one more follow-up. If private investors where to start an airline out of St Lucia, would the government have to help them get landing rights to other countries?
The answer was immediate. “Well, you know, we have an aviation agreement for CARICOM. We’re all supposed to recognise each other’s AOCs (airline operating companies).”
So I rest my case. Somebody has been giving an awful lot of thought to planes and aviation agreements and related things, is all I’m saying.
Patrick Hoyos is a journalist and publisher specialising in business. Email: [email protected]