By Kenton X. Chance
The Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) says it will not inject any more money into cash-strapped regional carrier, LIAT, until the airline’s service to the country improves.
This was one of the outcomes of a meeting between LIAT and government officials in Kingstown on Wednesday, two weeks after the Ralph Gonsalves government wrote the airline demanding talks over what it described as poor service to SVG.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Gonsalves and his delegation held discussions with the management of LIAT, headed by the acting Chief Executive Officer, Julie Reifer-Jones “to resolve LIAT’s deteriorating service experienced by the Vincentians”.
In a Sept. 4 letter to Diane Shurland, LIAT’s Antigua-based legal counsel, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of National Security in Kingstown, Godfred Pompey, had demanded the meeting, saying, “It is time for LIAT to get its act and attitude towards the travelling public of St. Vincent and the Grenadines together”.
In a statement on Thursday, the Office of the Prime Minister said that during Wednesday’s meeting, Gonsalves highlighted a number of challenges, including lack of information on delays and cancellation of flights to the travelling public.
The statement noted that the central mandate of LIAT is to provide the best possible service with the equipment available.
“The company must seek to carry out the mandate of the shareholder government and the board of directors in that the decisions made by shareholders are not fully implemented by the management of LIAT,” the statement said.
This was an apparent reference to the failure of the airline to shift its hub from Antigua to Barbados as the shareholder governments decided almost two years ago.
Gonsalves, who is chair of LIAT’s shareholder governments, said in Barbados last week, “the decision to shift the base has not been rescinded but the management has not carried out the decision and I would like to find out why”.
The governments of Barbados, SVG, and Antigua as the major shareholders own LIAT, with Dominica as a smaller shareholder.
The Gonsalves government also noted that there will be no new injection of funds from SVG into LIAT until the airline’s service is “significantly improved”.
This stance comes as the airline recently requested that Kingstown release a further EC$810,000 to help with its operations.
This signalled the government’s absolute dissatisfaction with the airline, as Gonsalves, one of LIAT’s biggest defenders, has repeatedly chided regional government for not investing in LIAT even as they benefit from its service.
The statement said that LIAT’s management was “apologetic” to the travelling public, especially the SVG national Men’s Football team.
Earlier this month, LIAT ordered the flight on which the team was travelling to Trinidad to return to St. Vincent about halfway through the journey then cancelled the flight.
This caused the footballers to miss their connection to Guatemala, resulting in their having to play their football World Cup Qualifier less than 24 hours after arriving in the Central American nation.
The statement said that LIAT agreed to review the schedule of flights in and out of SVG within one week to better serve the travelling public.
“This includes a 6:15 a.m. flight out of E.T. Joshua to Barbados and the 8:55 p.m. flight from Trinidad and Tobago,” the statement said.
The airline will also notify airport authorities by 9 p.m. about the need for any extension beyond the operating hours of the airport.
In his letter, Pompey had complained that to accommodate LIAT, the E.T. Joshua Airport had been remaining open up to 2 a.m., way past the 11:30 p.m. cut-off time it agreed with the airline.
The meeting also agreed LIAT would review the turnaround time of aircraft with a view to reducing the delays in operation of flights.
The airline will also “consider favourably a return of the direct Puerto Rico-SVG flight” and “improve customer service by providing more information to the travelling public in relation to flight delays and cancellations”.
The statement said that the meeting was also informed that a tenth ATR aircraft (72-seater) will be added to LIAT’s fleet by early November 2016.
“This will ease the demand for additional seats throughout LIAT’s network.”
Earlier this week, LIAT’s Chief Commercial Officer, Lloyd Carswell, said the airline was operating under “major constraints” and was struggling to provide a significant number of flights daily with fewer aircraft.
“We currently operate, on average, 80 flights per day, ranging from the north of the Caribbean to the extreme south with just nine aircraft. Five years ago LIAT operated a schedule with 17 aircraft,” he said.
Last week, Gonsalves said, “… the number of passengers we (LIAT) carrying is more than we had with 15 aircraft.”
He also said that the reason LIAT gave for the poor service of late has been bad weather, which he dismissed as “more of an excuse”.
“When the schedule is put out of whack, even for an hour, it has a knock-on effect throughout the whole chain because you do nearly a thousand flights per week. At the moment we have to do better,” Gonsalves said last week and blamed the current inefficiencies plaguing LIAT on its failure to implement the February 2015 decision to shift its base from Antigua to Barbados.
The statement on Thursday said that both the Gonsalves government and LIAT “were satisfied with the outcome of the discussions and the travelling public should look forward to an enhanced service as promised by LIAT”.
It said that another LIAT team held discussions with the management of the Argyle International Airport (AIA) in preparation for operations out of Argyle.