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Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves speaking at a press conference in Kingstown on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves speaking at a press conference in Kingstown on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.
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KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent (CMC) — St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves Tuesday said he had received a document from the Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) outlining a proposal for the financing and operation of a regional airline.

“I have studied very carefully the up-to-date document which I received from the President of the Caribbean Development Bank (Dr. Hyginus “Gene” Leon) concerning the re-establishment of a regional airline and the process by which we will do this,” Gonsalves told a news conference, saying that he would not talk about all the details contained in the document.

However, he told reporters that the initial owners of the airline could be the governments of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) “but we would have to engage the Caribbean Development Bank on this exercise too.

The OECS groups the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, SVG, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands.

Gonsalves said that while the location for a headquarters for the airline hasn’t been discussed, he was “offering” SVG as one of the options.

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But he acknowledged that “there’s some work still to be done … and we have to meet” telling reporters that following the news conference he would be holding discussions with the St. Lucian-born head of the CDB “on some clarifications and some next steps”.

He said that there would be a meeting with the OECS leaders and the CDB, “but we are moving seriously and actively in pursuance of an additional option in the air.

“What we have, we have to thank CAL (Caribbean Airlines) for the number of planes they are putting on, more and more they are increasing the number of seats, they are having some challenges as you noticed recently, I am sure they will sort out those internal challenges between management and labour.

“I know one or two private airlines are trying to do that but we need something which is a core and to have it evolved in a manner to suit our circumstances and all our requirements,” Gonsalves said recalling the financial and other challenges faced with the regional airline LIAT (1974) that entered into administration in July 2020 following increased debt and the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The airline is owned by the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines, and while the Barbados and St. Lucia governments have made available funds to cover the three-year outstanding debt to the workers in their countries, that has not been the case with employees in the other islands.

Gonsalves said if a poll were taken across the Caribbean region today, “there would be a poll against putting money into LIAT, you know”.

He said he had been making the point repeatedly like a mantra “I said to the region, a regional carrier of LIAT type is a marginal financial proposition, but it is absolutely necessary and desirable as a social and economic vehicle for islands, and particularly for islands engaged .in the business of tourism.

“We are moving people and we are a mobile people. It was so pellucid to me, so clear that I did not think it broke any serious opposition. Certainly, to make LIAT more efficient … there were big lies being told about it and every time I went to the Parliament for money it was a big song and dance.

“The opposition at every turn attacked it mercilessly even up to the last time in 2020,” he said noting that the EC$2.7 approved then did not go to the airline as planned.

“Because Barbados had shortly thereafter signalled that they can’t carry this thing anymore. They are out of it for the reasons which they gave and I told Gaston (Prime Minter Browne of Antigua and Barbuda) that St. Vincent and Grenadines and Antigua and Barbuda can’t carry it by ourselves.

“I had predicted then that though COVID … you are not seeing the loss because of COVID when we get back to some normalcy, people will see it  and they are seeing it.”

Gonsalves told reporters that there are “many, many lessons” learnt from the demise of LIAT including that “countries served by this airline should be equity partners or we should require market support.

“We have to try to make the airline fairly lean in its functioning so as to avoid some of the old legacy issues … and we need also to strengthen the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority,” he added.