The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected]

Mention the name LIAT in any of the markets served by “The Caribbean Airline” — as its tagline proudly proclaims — and the responses are likely to provoke high negative emotions ranging from acrimony to disgust to pity. For years LIAT has been delivering substandard service to the people of the sub-region. The beleaguered carrier is known worldwide for sloppy customer service, irregular arrival and departure times and misdirected luggage, among other problems. Things came to a head in the last quarter of 2016 when a combination of factors impacted its schedule.

In September 2016, amidst the din of daily complaints from air travellers to and from SVG, our government was shamed into talking tough about the LIAT debacle. The embarrassment surfaced when our nation’s senior football team was stranded at E.T. Joshua Airprot on Saturday, Sept. 3 on route to Trinidad from where they would connect to their Copa Airlines flight to Central America for their FIFA World Cup CONCACAF qualifier against Guatemala.

In an attempt to save face after coming under fire for continuing to prop up the embattled carrier in the face of overwhelming evidence that would dictate an alternative course, the SVG government wrote to LIAT’s legal counsel highlighting a litany of woes. The missive also contained a veiled threat to starve the cash-strapped entity of funds until it “significantly improved” its service.

Since then there have been meetings with the LIAT management and representatives of the shareholder governments, ostensibly to urge carrier to change its modus operandi. Nevertheless, from all reports, LIAT’s pathetic performance has remained consistent.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines has borne the brunt of LIAT’s brutality as this country   continues to receive “…the crumbs in terms of service…” as an SVG government operative so eloquently put it in a Sept. 13 communiqué. However, even to the casual observer it is patently clear that LIAT has not stopped “… taking St. Vincent and the Grenadines for granted…” Earlier (In February 2016) our PM berated LIAT’s “shabby treatment” of Vincentians using its “essential service”, comparing it to that of an abusive spouse. To the best of our certain knowledge the status of the “abused spouse” has not changed. This is largely due to the fact that LIAT’s management is not accountable to the real shareholders, the taxpaying public of the various shareholder territories.

As chair of airline’s shareholder governments, the Prime Minister of SVG must do more than merely talk tough. Even if it flies in the face a somewhat twisted philosophy that LIAT is not really a business, there must be a demand, backed by more than empty threats, that the carrier consistently operate as if it were a business or be yanked out of the Caribbean skies.

The other option is to force LIAT to compete on even ground. This is almost guaranteed to result in the necessary changes. There is no edict that LIAT must be kept alive in its present state. We must stop acting as though every regional operation will grind to a standstill if the LIAT we all know and hate is put out of its misery. We need to stop acting as though the purveyors of the misguided notion of “No LIAT, no air transport” are correct. This is not the case. Chaos will only be created if the transition to a new entity is not handled judiciously.

But we are not fooled into believing that common sense will alter the mind-set of individuals who are bent on treating the people’s business as their personal fiefdom. It is alleged that when the government of SVG pulled off that partisan political pre-election stunt at the unfinished Argyle International Airport more than a year ago, several travellers’ flight plans were disrupted. This could only be allowed to happen within the existing management structure. Maybe those who believe that LIAT is not a business are right.

There is no point in shelling out millions of taxpayers’ dollars to re-fleet if there is no concomitant change in the attitudes that drive the industry. This is one clear case that fine feathers do not necessarily make fine birds. Furthermore, if the claim that LIAT is more profitable today that it was 10 years or so ago is to be believed, then clearly even improved financial performance does not translate into improved service. But maybe we worry too much. Unless LIAT ups its game, it will undoubtedly be among the first casualties of improved air access to SVG — whenever that comes to pass.

The airline, the chair of the shareholder governments and the LIAT pilots’ Association have offered us different understandings of the main reasons for LIAT’s woes: “too many cancellations caused by illness of flight staff and crew”; a reduction in the size of the fleet servicing the traditional markets; scheduling issues, weak technology infrastructure and bad management. But there is another: political interference. The solution, therefore, does not rest with getting more regional governments on board. This would merely create a testosterone-charged hydra-headed monstrosity.

What we the people of this country and the rest of the sub-region need is leadership with a vision of an airline that can be properly managed to operate as a viable entity. We cannot accept, without question, the proposition that it is only in the realm of serendipity that LIAT break-even; otherwise the carrier will remain the butt of jokes in aviation circles and no amount of grandstanding will prevent people from seeing it as a branch of the entertainment industry.

Is there any hope that we will take the bold step to change the way we see and “do” LIAT in 2017?

Lavern V. King

Communication Consultant

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].

8 replies on “Whither LIAT in 2017?”

  1. rroxactionbequia says:

    That’s the big picture and all true. But within that there are many practical things LIAT could do with a change of attitude from their staff. For instance, when flying out of Joshua before Christmas there was a one and a half hour queue to get hold baggage checked manually. The dialogue went something like this:

    Me. How long has the scanning machine been out of action?

    LIAT.. Don’t know. Maybe about a month

    Me . Do you know when it will be repaired?.

    LIAT. Don’t’ know. Nobody tells us.

    Me. Have you ever asked?.

    LIAT. Not really. Not our job..

    Another example, when some people reached the head of this long queue they were then told….”..oh you’ve only got cabin baggage so no need to have it checked here, you will have to join the other queue over there.”

    No wonder LIAT flights almost always run late…and everyone gets so disappointed and angry. Fixing such small things isn’t rocket science and doesn’t take huge amounts of money. It just needs half decent management who recognise the constraints and bottlenecks and do something about them…..above all ..communicate.

  2. I have to agree that Lavern did a wonderful job of highlighting the issues that plague LIAT. She mentioned the phrase, “LIAT is not a business” several times, but didn’t attribute those words to the present chair of the stakeholders. Ralph has been defending the poor operation of LIAT for many years. He even challenged other heads of government because they refused to fund the airline. Now he’s playing Paul who has now seen the light.
    Notice the timing of his criticism: Just in time for the opening of AIA which will definitely bankrupt LIAT. He didn’t care how Vincentians suffered travelling through B/dos or T&T because he wanted their support for AIA. As long at Vincentian travelers were mad at LIAT; Ralph was laughing all the way to the bank.
    The ST. Lucia PM refused to support or fund LIAT unless the management was turned over to professionals; so the board made travel to ST. Lucia very difficult. I wanted to get from St. Lucia to SVG some years ago and had to first go to Barbados to catch a flight to SVG. That’s how devious, malicious and spiteful that shareholders board was and still is.
    LIAT was not doing anything positive for Vincentians and to Vincentians for many years. The government kept pumping millions into that sink-hole for years and nothing was returned in the form of a profit. The only thing Vincentians got out of this deal was frustration. Today three ingredients have LIAT in this strait-jacket: greed, deceit and lies. There is no way out but down.

    There is no way the board can save LIAT at this point because Grenadians can fly directly to Grenada. St. Lucians can fly directly to St. Lucia and soon Vincentians going home for Carnival and Christmas may be able to fly directly to AIA. Barbados will lose some revenue because visitors to the other islands don’t have to fly there. Only Dominica is left holding the bag because most of the other islands have direct flights into those islands. It will take some time to sort out this mess. Meanwhile travelers will still have to go through this ringer.
    Thanks again Lavern for you very thoughtful and intelligent assessment of this albatross that’s been hanging around Vincentians neck for far too long.

  3. All these years and Liat has never functioned properly. It does not seem to matter who manages the airline. This should tell us a lot. I suspect the trouble is the relationship between the airline and the main shareholders. Obviously the airline is over-tasked and the staff are not very happy. They do not seem to have a functioning SOP; and, who is really in charge…management or top shareholders that have no grasp of the facts on the ground, or….in the air, or both?

  4. But the scanning of luggage is not done by LIAT. That is the country’s (I.e. SVG’s) responsibility, just as the scanner for carry-on luggage and the passenger scanner are operated by agents of the government of SVG, not LIAT. So it really as the LIAT rep said

      1. rroxactionbequia says:

        Yes, but in a modern consumer focussed economy (which as a visitor destination SVG is competing with ) LIAT management would make it their job to find out the facts and keep banging on doors until they got an answer.
        It’s the very narrow and unimaginative compartmentalisation of roles and passivity of consumers that let ‘officialdom’ get away with such bleakly substandard performance…..to the huge detriment of the country of course. SVG must be world class in own goals.

      2. LIAT management …..etc. It ain’t nearly as straightforward as you suggest. My experience in SVG is that when something is dependent on our government doing something (which is why I pointed out that security checks are not effected by an airline, but by a government agency) is that a) there’s no money to repair equipment just now, or b) the person who has to authorize it hasn’t done that yet, or c) on one memorable occasion, the technicians have to come from Trinidad and we haven’t paid them yet for the last time they were here and they won’t come back until they’re paid. I imagine that LIAT’s management have had previous experience of similar responses.
        And just for the record – no,I am not a supporter of LIAT’ s management,and yes,I am as frustrated as anyone else by their incompetence. But at the same time I do recognize when something is actually beyond their control,and the original post does suggest that the malfunctioning scanner was an example of LIAT’s incompetency/inefficiency/lack of concern for their customers

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