Let's End LIAT's Crazy Days of Summer
Is LIAT, the regional airline, programmed to self-destruct? This is a logical question in that it is not easy to understand why a company would be so inclined on hurting itself. For Dominicans the distress caused by the company's inefficiencies is much more palpable because they have no other choice in accessing air transportation; moreover, their government recently used up millions of scarce tax payers' dollars in a bid to revitalise this obviously structurally weak, but absolutely essential, company.
The situation, unique to LIAT, of leaving an island any time and frequently ditching passengers at the wrong destination, has reached crisis proportions. And although hardly anything can be done to compensate for the damage that has been done to the Caribbean economy, regional governments must make sure that there will not be a repetition of this fiasco. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste and here is a clear opening for the region to find, and implement, solutions to that chronic problem of unreliable air transportation.
LIAT, almost everyone will admit, has provided bad customer service for most of its 50 years. But in 2013, during one of its busiest periods, delays and cancellations have exploded to intolerable proportions. But it appears that LIAT, an ineffective monopoly, seems to be unperturbed. And though every airline has problems from time to time, LIAT's latest troubles appear to be caused by nothing more than blatant incompetence. Even Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the perennial defender of the troubled airline, has concluded that the "lack of discipline" of the staff was the cause of the problems.
Nevertheless, the bad press that LIAT has been subjected to over the last few weeks have undoubtedly deepened the crisis. LIAT's latest woes received prominence in the international press, such as ABC Television's 'Good Morning America' and on social media when Sir Richard Branson tweeted, "How to write a complaint letter - read this hilarious note from a frustrated airline passenger."
The letter, written by Englishman Arthur Hicks, states:
May I say how considerate it is of you to enable your passengers such an in-depth and thorough tour of the Caribbean.
Most other airlines I have travelled on would simply wish to take me from Point A to B in rather a hurry. I was intrigued that we were allowed to stop at not a lowly one or two but a magnificent six airports yesterday. And who wants to fly on the same airplane the entire time? We got to change and refuel every step of the way!
I particularly enjoyed sampling the security scanners at each and every airport. I find it preposterous that people imagine them all to be the same. And as for being patted down by a variety of islanders, well, I feel as if I've been hugged by most of the Caribbean already.
I also found it unique that this was all done on 'island time', because I do like to have time to absorb the atmosphere of the various departure lounges. As for our arrival, well, who wants to have to take a ferry at the end of all that flying anyway? I'm glad the boat was long gone by the time we arrived into Tortola last night - and that all those noisy bars and restaurants were closed.
So thank you, LIAT. I now truly understand why you are 'The Caribbean Airline'. P.S. Keep the bag. I never liked it anyway.
Additionally, Dominican hotelier Gregor Nassief wrote, and publicised, at least two letters to Jean Holder, Chairman of LIAT and to management detailing his angry reaction to the airline's inefficiency. In one of these letters Nassief demanded Holder's resignation.
"If you are unable to force the necessary executive changes at LIAT then you must step up to take responsibility for the current crisis," Nassief stated. "I ask you to put the pettiness aside, show true greatness, and resign. Resign because it is the honourable thing to do, resign because it will set an example of accountability to the sitting and future Directors and Executives, resign because the people of the Caribbean and the visitors to the Caribbean need to see that after the more than two months of suffering that LIAT has put them through that at least one person stands tall, takes the blame and feels the shame".
Good luck, Gregor; you will have to use cruise missiles to force Holder, or any Caribbean CEO, out of office for the failures of his company. The question then is: what lessons should we learn from the LIAT crisis and how will the region avoid a recurrence of the problem? As Dr Norman Girvan of the University of the West Indies noted in 2010 "as early as 1967 Steve De Castro of the Mona UWI Economics Department published a paper on collaboration in the West Indian Air Transport Industry, as part of the UWI/ISER Integration Studies.
"De Castro pointed out that under international rules, a single West Indian airline could secure an outright monopoly on all intra-regional routes as 'cabotage' routes—i.e. routes on points within the same country (e.g. Trinidad and Tobago, Kingston and Montego Bay). The monopoly could be used to engage in cross-subsidisation from heavily travelled (e.g. tourist) routes to less profitable (e.g. intra-island) routes. De Castro's model was Scandinavian Airlines—SAS". Dr Girvan added: "The De Castro proposal, like all other subsequent proposals for collaboration, fell on deaf ears".
It is obvious that new recommendations to solve the region's air transportation problem cannot continue to fall on deaf ears. As a start, LIAT has to be completely rebuilt from the bottom up.