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
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].