Don't even think of celebrating LIAT's demise: the airline's departure will hurt Dominicans
In a letter dated 2 July to the prime ministers of Barbados, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Antiguan prime minister, Gaston Browne, made clear his "deep regret" at the decision to fold the decades old, financially stifled, regional carrier, LIAT – a decision Mr. Browne opposed.
In the letter - sent ahead of a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) heads of government meeting at which the Barbadian leader, Mia Mottley, was to pass on the chairmanship to her Vincentian counterpart, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, but at which the airline's plight was to be discussed also - the Antiguan prime minister linked the now doomed carrier to the regional integration project. And he promised to support the integration process despite his disappointment.
"The absolute necessity of collaboration and cooperation with the member nations of our CARICOM family is, for Antigua and Barbuda, an article of faith," Mr. Browne wrote. "We know that it is no cliché to assert that we are stronger together and weaker apart. Therefore, even though we are disappointed that other shareholder governments have considered it necessary to liquidate LIAT 1974 Ltd without sympathetic consideration of the impact of this decision on Antigua and Barbuda, or of the fact that aviation services, through LIAT's operations, represent the only tangible benefit to Antigua and Barbuda of its participation in CARICOM, our national commitment to the ideal of a strong and vibrant Caribbean Community remains." The language here is more measured, more respectful of his fellow heads of government, than his utterances immediately following the decision to liquidate the airline.
Going against all protocol – as is his right as a major shareholder and government leader – Mr. Browne jumped the gun and announced the decision ahead of Dr. Gonsalves, the chairman of the shareholder governments. And he immediately began making demands, like maintaining the headquarters of any entity that replaces the collapsed carrier in St. John's, and keeping the LIAT name.
In subsequent media interviews he accused fellow leaders of "insularity hidden in intellectual subterfuge" and of engaging in "a conspiracy" to stymie LIAT's resurgence. On his Facebook page Mr. Browne also suggested that some leaders were engaged in "petty jealousies" and "poaching".
"We will never allow anyone, or group of insular Caribbean leaders to kill this important regional institution," he posted. And, to top it off, he boycotted the CARICOM meeting over the affair.
While this may play well to his constituents in Antigua and Barbuda where over two-thirds of LIAT's 600-plus employees were based, this puerility does nothing for furthering the cause of the regional integration project which Mr. Browne so passionately espouses.
The Antiguan leader did have some very important and valid points in his letter to the three prime ministers, however. On more than one occasion he referred to LIAT as a bridge, and he was emphatic in its defence, writing that LIAT did not abandon the Caribbean people, nor did it fail the region. He is right on both counts. It's the governments of the over 20 destinations that it served who failed LIAT by imposing ridiculously high taxes on intra-regional travellers, making it so costly that the people of the Caribbean found it cheaper to visit the United States than their neighbours. It is the governments who spend millions of dollars each year to attract international tourists while encouraging xenophobia towards our Caribbean brothers and sisters - thus discouraging them from visiting each other - who have failed Caribbean people. It's those who spend millions more subsidising foreign carriers while thumbing their noses at LIAT who are the real culprits. It's those who fail to recognise LIAT as the bridge that connects a group of countries, all separated by water – with the exception of Guyana – who have let us down.
A look at the local blogs reveal celebration by Dominicans over LIAT's demise, but, be careful what you celebrate because, as Oscar Wilde said, "When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers."
Make no mistake about it, Dominica will be among the worst affected by the loss of LIAT. Mark Marie said it well in an article in The Sun last week when he explained that LIAT operated as a public service. No profit-driven private airline will operate this route if it's not profitable. None will be willing to make the multiple stops that get us to any Caribbean destination if there aren't sufficient numbers to make it worth their while. With LIAT's fall, we in Dominica may soon find out that travelling to Barbados, St. Kitts, Trinidad, the Virgin Islands, or almost anywhere in the region would either be nigh impossible or a lot costlier than we ever imagined.
Yes, its customer service on the ground left a lot to be desired. Yes, the management often projected ineptness. Yes, it needed to cut some of the fat. And yes, sometimes we arrived home without our luggage, but we got home. Safely - for its safety record was impeccable - sometimes with just two or three of us. It did this for seven decades, through the bad days and the worst days. In the interim, many other carriers came and left hurriedly when they realised that doing multiple short-haul flights with sparsely populated aircraft is not the pot of gold they envisioned.
So, to borrow a phrase attributed to the former US president, Franklin Roosevelt, in 1939, when someone asked him about the wisdom of supporting Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza – LIAT may have been an SOB, but it was our SOB. Leave it at that.