At a time when the Caribbean has had little to celebrate since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the news that LIAT, the Antigua-based regional carrier, returned to a limited commercial schedule last week was indeed good news.
We had cause to celebrate!
LIAT was pulled from the jaws of certain death when Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne, supported by his Cabinet, intervened to save the airline.
Rather than pursuing the course of liquidation that some other shareholder governments prefered, the Browne government used the fact that LIAT is headquartered in St. John’s to approach the court and petition for an arrangement similar to the bankruptcy protection that exists in the United States.
The way was further paved when Antigua and Barbuda’s Parliament, including the full support of the opposition, made amendments to the Companies Act which paved the way for LIAT’s salvation.
An administrator was ultimately appointed by the court to manage the affairs of the airline and help it return to a position of solvency.
It is a tortuous journey that has involved discussions with creditors, staff, governments, airport authorities, union representatives and an array of others who all have interests in the airline.
Through it all the goal has been clear: LIAT is a valuable regional institution and no efforts should be spared in finding modality in returning the airline to business – not as a ‘flash in the pan’ or for public relations purposes – but as a sustainable and self-sufficient business.
A second goal is to find investors who can remove some of the burdens of the Antigua and Barbuda government’s new position as the largest single shareholder in the airline.
Already, private interest and governments – Dominica and St. Kitts and Nevis – have warmed to this idea.
Two weeks ago, the airline posted on its website the details of its ‘limited schedule’ for flights to several Caribbean territories.
This news was welcomed by all!
Last Monday, the schedule went into effect with flights to countries including Barbados. Over the rest of the week, the flights went off without a hitch.
All was well, but not for long.
On Saturday, the LIAT issued a press release indicating that it had been forced to suspend flights into Barbados and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Both territories communicated their reasons for the route suspensions, explanations which some aviation insiders consider to be ‘dubious’.
It is noteworthy that since the resumption of air lift to these territories, no other airline has been asked to meet the requirements imposed on LIAT. None! Neither regional or international.
Even though LIAT has approval to operate into Barbados until July 2024, that country has demanded that LIATrenew its licenses with them before it can resume flights into the Grantley Adams International Airport.
The question now is why?
Why would Barbados, the largest shareholder in LIAT (1974) Ltd. until recently when it relinquished its shares, impose road blocks in LIAT’s path?
For years, Barbados fought to have LIAT’s headquarters relocated to Bridgetown. It is fair to say that after Antigua and Barbuda, the government and people of Barbados gave the most to LIAT. Why then would Barbados move to take action that is clearly designed to hamper LIAT’s forward movement?
From our vantage point, it appears that some influential person, or perhaps people, in Barbados are displeased by LIAT’s revival.
Speculation has been rife as to the identity of these actors since the airline announced the new obstacle in its way on Saturday, but there exists no obvious answer at this time.
One thing is very clear, the people of Antigua and Barbuda have greeted the news with anger. Many perceive Barbados’ move as an attempt to stymie LIAT while others believe it is motivated by ‘bad mindedness’.
Barbados is the seat of the US Embassy in the Eastern Caribbean and as such it isa critical hub for LIAT. Barbados’ actions to restrict LIAT’s operations will no doubt have a domino effect throughout the region.
We can only hope that reason prevails in discussions between LIAT and Barbadian authorities today.
The situation between LIAT and St. Vincent and the Grenadines appears less complicated and ought to be resolved should airport authorities there act with alacrity.
Antigua and Barbuda has been one of the strongest supporters of CARICOM, its treaties and regulations, however in the face of the latest developments involving LIAT, the questions must be asked: What is the purpose of the grouping if not to preserve regional unity, promote integration and prevent situations such as this? And if it cannot achieve these goals, is it worth it?