Before making any attempts to revive LIAT – much less establish a new regional airline – Caribbean governments must recognise that there are still more than 600 former employees of the regional carrier out of work and facing severe hardship.
President of the Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association (LIALPA), Captain Patterson Thompson said if Caricom heads of government could now have come up with a plan to try to launch a new airline, they could have sat and done the same to save LIAT.
The airline significantly scaled back its operations in April 2020 at the start of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, sending 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.
“The same way they could have sat down (in Suriname), I wish they could have sat down a lot earlier and come to a collective decision about the best way to go forward,” Thompson said on the Down to Brass Tacks talk show on VOB 92.9 FM on Wednesday.
“While it is good news to hear there is a rescue plan (for Caribbean travel) afoot, there are a lot of former LIAT workers, like me, that are struggling. I do think though, that for this plan to work, all the kids in the sandbox will have to play nicely.”
Thompson made another impassioned plea for leaders of the shareholders governments to meet with LIALPA and other associated workers’ unions to try to solve the issue of the outstanding payments.
“There are some of the employees – pilots who have married pilots, pilots who have married flight attendants, pilots who have married engineers, pilots who have married ground staff – who have had the double impact of both ‘breadwinners’ losing their jobs,” he said.
“Some of them want to move on, they do not want to come back, and some of them do not want to move on, but need ‘closure’. They need to be able to fend for themselves and be part of society again. They just want to be treated with some dignitiy.
“I would relish the opportunity again hopefully to talk about more positive news and if we can get some kind of financial aid package for our workers.”
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 countries, particularly those in the Eastern Caribbean, and even Trinidad & Tobago have severely affected by the loss of thousands of seats because LIAT was no longer flying into destinations.
“We are going to address the issue of a regional air carrier of some kind, may well be the revival of LIAT in some form or the other, but we have to get a consultant in the area of aviation to put the framework together and some numbers as a matter of urgency for us to move on,” Gonsalves said.
Thompson said though it was clear that there was a need for “reasonably cost airline travel” in the Caribbean, for a new airline to be successful, there were several areas of concern to be addressed.
He said the three main areas of concern were the easing of taxes on airline tickets, operating the airline primarily based on commercial activity and profitable routes, and a single licensing standard for pilots and other critical personnel in the civil aviation industry in the Caribbean.