LIAT leaves Melville Hall Airport
LIAT leaves Melville Hall Airport

Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and the other governments with shares in the struggling regional carrier LIAT are being advised once again to stop the political interference in the airline if they want it to be viable.

A Barbadian banker who was instrumental in raising nearly USS$23.5 million through a regional bond issue when the airline was "on the verge of death" over a decade ago is complaining that governments' meddling in the airline prevents it from progressing and becoming profitable, according to the Barbadian online newspaper, Barbados TODAY.

"Just because the politicians agree that the governments will fund it is not a reason for it to be a free for all for everybody where all the politicians get to say employ this body and employ that body . . . it is too political and they need to move it out of the realm of politics and LIAT has to be made commercially viable," the paper quoted former president of the Barbados Bankers Association Horace Cobham as saying.

Just days earlier the issue was raised by the recently elected prime minister of St. Lucia Allen Chastanet, who in swearing not to put a cent in LIAT, told shareholder governments to take their hands off the carrier and allow it to operate on a strictly commercial basis.

Neither Chastanet nor Cobham named Skerrit but the Dominican leader's perceived role in the sudden resignation of the airline's last chief executive officer David Evans was widely reported across the Caribbean.

Charged with turning the airline into a viable entity, Evans had begun to make internal and operational changes, including the reduction of flights to Dominica and several other destinations. The issue was compounded by a reduced fleet, flight delays and cancellations and poor customer service.

One cancellation in particular, blew Skerrit's fuse and he fired a scathing letter on 8 April expressing "my utter disgust" at the airline's treatment of Dominica, while calling for an urgent meeting of the board to discuss the issue.

"Permit me to express my utter disgust at the shabby manner in which the Commonwealth of Dominica is being treated by LIAT. There appears to be an awful negative attitude towards Dominica by senior personnel in LIAT and I am warning now that this must stop," the prime minister wrote in the letter which was covered extensively by regional media.

Not long after, Evans was gone and, following a subsequent meeting with his temporary replacement Julie Reifer-Jones, the minister of tourism Robert Tonge announced a new LIAT schedule which included additions flights to Dominica.

"We expressed clearly to LIAT the need for improved service to Dominica. As you know the Honourable Prime Minister wrote to LIAT recently and the meeting was a follow-up to the Prime Minister's letter. The importance of LIAT to Dominica's air access is critical and it cannot remain business as usual for the country," Minister Tonge disclosed in a statement.

It is this sort of interference, Cobham feels, that forces the carrier to fly unprofitable routes and near empty planes simply to satisfy the political demands of its shareholders.

At the same time, he insists, there must be greater financing of the struggling carrier by more governments.

"The easiest thing for LIAT or any airline company to do is to say, 'I am cutting that route'. If you cut the route to Dominica, for example, what will happen?

"Some routes aren't commercially viable. So if you are saying at the political level we need LIAT to fly there, then you will have to pay for it and that is where the problem exists in LIAT. Because it is called a Caribbean airline, they feel that it has to fly there even if it has just ten people, and if you don't fly there, the politicians will get up in arms," he said.