Involve private sector in new regional airline, Thompson says

Any new airline formed by Caribbean governments must be under a public-private partnership to be successful.

President of the Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association Patterson Thompson highlighted several inefficiencies of regional carrier LIAT, which significantly scaled back its operations two years ago at the start of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“I think the hybrid model will be better with the private sector holding the majority shares and the governments will come in at a lower level,” he said on Wednesday on the Down to Brass Tacks talk show on VOB 92.9 FM.

“I would say to my former colleagues that some of the things we may have engaged in previously will not be tolerated going forward, and the mentality towards certain things will have to change.

“Whether it is a LIAT 2020 Ltd or 1974 Ltd will need to have a lot more productivity, and it goes on both sides, management and workers will have to realise it is a new beginning.”

St Vincent & the Grenadines prime minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves said on Tuesday that Caricom leaders have agreed on a new modern multilateral air services agreement that will enable a new framework within which air transportation will operate in the Caribbean.

He told a news conference marking the end of the 43rd Caricom summit in the Suriname capital of Paramaribo that leaders hoped this will lead to either a resuscitation of LIAT or the launch of a new Caribbean air carrier.

In either case, Thompson, the former Barbados and West Indies fast bowler, said there will be a need for discussions to take place if any of the former LIAT workers are to be rehired.

The restructuring of LIAT sent its large pool of employees around the Caribbean into a financial and emotional tailspin.

Former workers of LIAT, including pilots, flight attendants, and ground handling crews around the Caribbean are still owed millions in severance and other payments because of the parlous state of its finances, and no end appears in sight to the present saga.

LIAT was primarily funded by the governments of Barbados – the main shareholder – as well as Antigua & Barbuda – where it is headquarted – St Vincent & the Grenadines, and Dominica, but they could not reach agreement on the settlement of the outstanding financial obligations to the workers.

“I am in favour of sitting down and having a conversation with the governments to work out a proper deal,” he said. “To agree to a moratorium (on outstanding payments), I do not have the power to do that for all the workers.

“Secondly, we have already been two years in the hole, so when they ask for us to take another moratorium, you are looking at four years in the hole. I will also say that I do not expect to go back to work at a resuscitated LIAT at the same rates at which I finished. Obviously, they are starting over, and there will be a decrease, and you also have to take that into consideration.

“Thirdly, the cost of living is rising astronomically, so you have to create a salary structure, which can take care of what is going on in the present set of circumstances.”

Thompson said it was clear that there is a need for “reasonably cost airline travel” in the Caribbean, but there were three areas of concern that had to be addressed.

“We have to look at some of the infrastructure we have in place, including the tax regimes and tax systems,” he said.

“If you want people to travel, you have to make it affordable, and I think that is one of the biggest issues we have to face.”

He added: “Each (territory) will have its own agenda, and airline travel must be affordable. There has been a suggestion of MRGs (minimum revenue guarantees). They are useful, but I have always felt that if you need an MRG, it means the flight is not viable.

“I think everyone can make a flight in and out of (a territory) every day, night and day, but we cannot go back to flogging one particular island six and seven times a day. That does not make sense.”

Thompson said another major issue that also needed to be addressed among the Caricom heads of government was licensing.

“The European Union has one licensing standard… and they are all speaking different languages, but they have one licence EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) licence and one EASA airspace,” he said.

“Here we are in the Caribbean – and we all speak the same language – but there are multiple civil aviaition authorities. If we are going to talk about regional integration, we have to take some of these impediments out of the way.”


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