By Nelson A. King
NEW YORK, New York CMC – Chairman of the shareholder governments of the regional airline, LIAT, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves has acknowledged that the airline has been a terrible disappointment to the Caribbean travelling public in recent months.
“LIAT was terribly disappointed to the people of the Caribbean over the summer,” said Gonsalves, who was in New York for the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly Debate.
LIAT shareholder governments are Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Barbados and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Gonsalves, who is the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister, told a town hall meeting here over the weekend that while not excusing the Antigua-based airline for the situation, the computer system of one of two new ATR, French-Italian, aircraft that LIAT recently purchased had developed problems.
He said as a result engineers were dispatched from Toulouse, France to resolve the problem.
At the same time, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister said the older Dash-8 aircraft had also “suffered unusual difficulties,” adding to “a lot of maintenance costs.
“It is a difficult airline to manage, and it is an airline which is not in financial proposition, but one which is socially and economically necessary,” said Gonsalves, pointing out that LIAT flies to 22 destinations, with roughly 1,000 flights per week.
He said the re-fleeting exercise of 12 new ATRs is costing LIAT shareholders US$110 million, with the Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) providing a loan of US$65 million.
“Unfortunately, when you’re moving from one type of aircraft to another, it’s not like moving from a Volkswagen (car), driving it in the morning and driving a BMW in the evening where you have the same driver’s license.
“Even though you are qualified to fly the Dash 8, you have to be specially trained to fly the ATR, and once you are licensed to fly the ATR by the relevant authorities, you can’t go back to fly the Dash 8.”
Gonsalves said in addition, while LIAT’s management had anticipated that more ATRs would be available, “you had the peculiar situation in which more ATR pilots were trained than ATR aircrafts to be flown, as well as an insufficiency of pilots to fly the existing Dash 8s”.
Gonsalves said he was still awaiting a “detailed report as to how and where the error was made.
“Was it something which could have been avoided? Could the transition have been smoother? So the transition was really problematic,” he said, adding that “some persons in the LIAT company, the management level, the lower levels and providers of services , there is some evidence that they were not as careful and as disciplined as they should have been.
“None of this, obviously, is meant to exculpate LIAT from its obligations, but I offer it as an explanation as to the context of the difficulties which existed,” he said, adding “but, in a nutshell, the transition was not effected in a proper manner, thus giving rise to a series of hiccups.
“I, myself, suffered in transit. The problem is that LIAT’s management did not communicate to the people of the region as well as they should have communicated about the difficulties of which I’m talking,” Gonsalves said.
“And that was a challenge. I knew what were the problems, so when I get stranded, I just sit down and wait at the airport. I did not allow my blood pressure to go up,” he said.
Gonsalves said, despite the challenges, the shareholders would continue to invest in LIAT, stating four of the 12 new ATRs were now on hand, three will come on stream between now and the end of January, and all 12 would have arrived by the end of December next year.
“Were it not for the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, LIAT would have already been out of the skies,” Gonsalves said.
Last week, the main opposition United Workers Party (UWP) in St. Lucia expressed concern about the service provided by LIAT.
UWP Leader, Allen Chastanet, a former tourism minister, noted that the operations of LIAT were critical to the tourism industry and the overall business market of St Lucia, notwithstanding, the dependency on LIAT for the delivery of professional and efficient service.