LIAT returns to the skies this week heralding the start of a new era for the Antigua-based regional carrier.
The LIAT that will commence service to limited routes this week – its first flights in more than six months – is for all intents and purposes, a new airline.
While elements of the ‘old LIAT’ linger, the airline is getting back into operation with a completely new attitude and approach to doing business. The old culture of the airline will be abandoned in favour of leaner, more efficient operations. This is the only way the airline will be able to survive.
The new LIAT will no longer have at its disposal the resources of the combined treasuries of four shareholder governments, which in the past pumped millions of hard earned, taxpayer dollars into keeping the airline afloat. Those days are gone!
Oversight of the new LIAT will not come from a Board of Directors, nor will it be guided by top-heavy management. For the foreseeable future, this responsibility will fall on the shoulders of LIAT’s court appointed administrator, Cleveland Seaforth.
The fact that LIAT has survived, is by itself worthy of celebration as, had it not been for the singular efforts of Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne and his Cabinet, it would have suffered the death other former shareholders were prepared to condemn it to. The Gaston Browne administration literally rescued LIAT from death’s door.
So like a phoenix rising from the ashes, LIAT will soar into the Caribbean skies this week.
For the people of the region, but especially Antiguans and Barbudans, LIAT’s return to operation is a welcomed development. Antigua and Barbuda has been home to LIAT home from its inception nearly 65 years ago and for this reason it holds a special place in our the hearts.
One of the key assets of the new LIAT moving forward is the goodwill of the people of the Caribbean. No matter the matter jokes, disparaging remarks or invectives hurled at LIAT, Caribbean people take great pride in the airline’s superior safety record and the knowledge that its pilots are among the world’s best at flying short-stop aircraft into varying terrains.
This goodwill is among the things that LIAT will need to keep going forward.
Already, the administrator has indicated that the airline will need to gross approximately $4 million monthly to meet its expenses. LIAT will need the people of the Caribbean to want to fly in large enough numbers to help the airline successfully navigate the treacherous first months ahead and already, there are worrying omens.
Last week, OECS heads failed to agree on a common set of rules for the creation of a ‘travel bubble’ that will facilitate the movement of people in the sub-region. The sub-region has long had a history of cooperation that has been the envy of the larger CARICOM group. So the question arises, if the OECS cannot agree on a common travel bubble, how will CARICOM?
Then there is the decision by Barbados to introduce its own travel advisory that ignores the guidelines of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) which CARICOM’s leaders asked it to create for regional approval and adoption.
Barbados’ decision must not be taken lightly as just a week ago, the US Embassy in Barbados announced the resumption of in-person visa services. With a pent-up desire to travel as soon as the pandemic is a thing of the past, the demands for US visas will grow. This will result in increased demand for travel to the US Embassy in Barbados.
The other issues to navigate include LIAT’s significant debts.
The Administrator Seaforth reported recently that he has been able to negotiate deferrals with some creditors, but conceded that he has not been successful in all cases. We can only encourage him to press on.
Staffing issues are among the most sensitive challenges that the airline now faces. While there is broad acceptance by all that LIAT cannot rehire the more than five hundred of its Antigua and Barbuda based employees, no one wants to be among the hundreds who will be left unemployed.
The country’s economy has taken its most severe hit in perhaps forty years and employment is at its highest in a generation. These are not normal times and everyone is hoping to receive a call-back from the airline.
Rather than rehiring staff, the airline may wish to consider outsourcing as a means of servicing its needs while helping its former employees. Groups of employees could come together and offer their services to LIAT which will allow the airline to forego the attendant staffing costs.
It is our hope that LIAT’s journey will last for another six decades and that the airline will find a path to self-reliance and profitability in the face of continued and inevitable uncertainty.