Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves says he has a plan in mind for regional air travel.
It comes about a week after the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines spoke about the challenges he faced while preparing for several overseas trips, including trips across the Caribbean.
Although he did not disclose the plan to listeners of the local radio show, Gonsalves detailed the story of bankrupt regional carrier LIAT, an entity of which he served as chairman for shareholder governments.
The airline is owned by the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne previously said a decision had been made that would allow Barbados and SVG to sell their shares in LIAT to St. John’s for one EC dollar (one EC dollar = 0.37 USD).
Gonsalves told radio listeners he faced strong opposition from regional governments and their populations, many of whom he said are now calling for the airline to be revived.
“But, I’m giving you the story and now they’re saying, ‘Ralph, do something about it. And will do something about it. I have a plan in mind. I have to do something about it. But I tell you, it is more difficult to start than to have made the reform.
Gonsalves said air transport in the region is now “a mess”, and that he persevered for two decades, having come to power in March 2001 at a time when the region’s governments “bowed and scratched in front of Allan Stanford”, the Texas businessman and founder of the bankrupt airline, Caribbean Star, who was later jailed for life in the United States for operating a Ponzi scheme.
Premier Gonsalves said he stood up to Stanford, adding that he argued the Texan should not control the skies of the region, even if he moved to Antigua.
He noted that at one time, Kingstown was LIAT’s largest shareholder, until the reallocation of US$65 million, which was done according to the Aristotelian principle of equity among equals, proportionality among unequals.
After the renewal of the fleet, the participation of Barbados and Antigua increased compared to that of Saint Vincent.
“But still, I was president and nobody wanted anybody else to be president because I was the champion of LIAT the whole time. The whole time you know all the licks I receive,” he said, adding that this situation continued as recently as April 2020 when opposition lawmakers here criticized him for budgeting US$1 million for the ailing LIAT. financial as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began to hit the region, with countries closing their borders.
“And across the country, people who are now speaking up for LIAT, they’re joining the bandwagon. But I didn’t mind because I knew it was the right policy,” Gonsalves said, noting that one of LIAT’s key regional governments pulled out, saying it couldn’t invest any more money. in the airline, also withdrawing the million US dollar investment.
Gonsalves said that at the same time he advocated with LIAT staff and even attended several meetings in Antigua on the issue.
“And every time they go on strike or slow down, it costs EC$750,000, a million, EC$1.5 million a day. I just couldn’t understand how the people who worked in the company would want do that and every time they came to say it was a management issue.”
He said there were management issues, but he told staff that their frequent strikes amounted to “cutting down your own breadfruit tree.”
“And both things, the lack of appetite of other governments to invest money and the behavior of some pilots, some engineers, some flight attendants,” contributed to the airline’s financial problems, said Gonsalves, noting that when a flight attendant called in sick at the last minute, it disrupted the airline’s schedule.
“Remember that I have always said that LIAT, a regional air carrier, is at best a marginal financial proposition, but it is a vital economic and social issue of the utmost importance.
“That’s what I’ve said all the time: that regional air transport is a public good and that the governments served by LIAT should put as part of their budget on an annual basis the amount of money to help this major carrier.”
He said Saint Lucia, whether under the government of the Saint Lucia Labor Party (SLP) or the United Workers Party, was “actively against LIAT” and other countries said the seat should be moved. from Antigua.
“I said, ‘but that’s not something realistic now, let’s work together and see if we can make some changes,’ he said, adding that Dominica finally joined the group “in a small measure” and Grenada, under the leadership of the Prime Minister, Dr Keith. Mitchell, put in some money “towards the end…
“But there were no takers. Trinity, after [Prime Minister] Patrick Manning, all the governments said, no, they’re not doing anything with it. And that’s what happened.
He said a former pilot, whom he described as “Big Jim…a white guy from Barbados who lives in Canada,” had “all the answers.
“He wrote me a whole series of things. I don’t care about him. Slander everyone on the internet. Business people from Dominica, a guy, he wrote a whole bunch of stuff, he met me on the plane. I took a trip once and just wished this flight was done. He just harassed me. My mom raised me with manners so I just listened but inside I was boiling over because of her ignorance of air travel and he lectured me endlessly.
Gonsalves said journalists in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada and other places where he appeared on media programs and “ordinary people” ask him why he was putting so much money into LIAT.
“I’m going through an airport, LIAT is half an hour late or something, they’re in trouble. It’s a scene they create at every airport in the Caribbean because I’ve been recognized as Mr. LIAT.
“But I took all the slingshots and arrows because I knew what I was doing was right. , flight attendants, some engineers, I just had to give up.
Prime Minister Gonsalves said the phrase “leave it to the private sector” was also a mantra.
“I said, but private sector entities came and went like Miss Janie’s fire.” I gave him the example, Carib Express, EC Express, BWEE Express, other individual carriers? »
Gonsalves said Caribbean Airlines (CAL) from Trinidad serves some destinations but not very frequently.
“We had almost 40 flights and during the high season more than 40 flights per week (to Saint-Vincent) with LIAT,” he added.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Browne called on unions across the Caribbean to rethink their positions on the latest offer made to laid-off airline workers.
The government of Antigua and Barbuda said it was providing two million dollars “to meet the partial satisfaction of the cash component of the compassionate payment” to former local employees of the regional airline, LIAT.
On Tuesday, former Barbados-based LIAT employees, complaining of being “disappointed and frustrated” with the way they have been treated for the past two years by Caribbean governments, petitioned Prime Minister Mia Mottley claiming payment of severance pay due to them.
“We have waited and pleaded on deaf ears for the shareholder governments to do the right thing by ensuring that we receive the monies owed. Our financial situation is becoming extremely dire by the minute,” said former LIAT workers in their letter to the Prime Minister.
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