EDITORIAL: Yet another appeal

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LIAT is just one of those topics that never goes away.  It is likely because at one point or another, almost everyone has to give the airline some of their hard-earned money to fly around the Caribbean because the options for regional travel are limited. Talk to anyone about his or her experience with LIAT and the conversation usually begins with a sigh. It is typically a sigh of frustration, disappointment and resignation all rolled into one and that is unfortunate. Such is the tattered reputation of LIAT.  
Try as the company may, it cannot hide from the glare of the spotlight which shines on its every move.  Most recently, fresh concerns being raised by Dr. Keith Mitchell, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), regarding the airline’s operations.  We say “fresh” but other than timing, there is really nothing too fresh about Dr. Mitchell’s concerns and observations, and that really gets to the heart of the problem that is LIAT.  We continue to do what we have proven does not work, or at least, does not work best. 
Dr. Mitchell, who was speaking during the opening ceremony of the 48th Annual Caribbean Development Bank meeting, said, again, that governments should address the high cost of travel in the region.  Revealing his own frustration, the Grenadian prime minister stated that he has “long advocated for the immediate need” to address the issue and added, “I echo my call made at various heads of government conferences that heads should collectively agree to reduce airline ticket taxes and some other fees which are attached to intra-regional air travel.”
We have talked about LIAT extensively over the years, and other than the high-level political wrangling, not much has changed.  The employees continue to have grievances and ever so often, the situation reaches a boil where action is taken and customers are inconvenienced. Chief executive officers come and go while the airline continues to be cash-strapped and the public’s perception of the airline does not improve.   There has been a shift in shareholder percentages and planes have been replaced and relocated from Antigua to Barbados.  Much window-dressing, but nothing of substance for the public to hold on to!
Before we continue, it is worth pointing out that reliable and affordable regional travel is a must if we are to achieve the integration that we all talk about.  Without basic regional travel options there will be no unity and no integration.  From our vantage point, there isn’t a long line of investors wanting to plunk down money to establish a competitor, so LIAT is the only viable option, at least for now.   We realise that we are liberally using the word “viable” but it is an apt description. 
We are not airline experts by any means, but what we do know is that there are many out there. What has always stood out from all the noise is that we have never been able to secure the (right) expertise to take the company towards sustainability, or better yet, profitability.   Is it that our situation in the Caribbean is so unique that profitability is a pie in the sky dream?   That is a genuine question, by the way. 
Now, we have heard the argument that LIAT cannot afford to pay for “the best,” but can we afford not to?  If you look at this from a pure dollars and cents perspective, and you are willing to accept that LIAT can be “saved” with more experienced personnel at the top, then the decision should be a no-brainer.  Last we heard, LIAT was losing money; lots of money!  According to Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who is also chair of LIAT’s shareholder governments, LIAT was expected to post a loss of EC$35.6 million last year, due in part to the extreme weather.   Let’s say, for the sake of this argument, that in a regular year, LIAT is losing US$2 million.  If they were to spend US$1 million on top talent, would the resulting efforts of that talent erase the losses and get the company to self-sustainability?  If you believe that is the case, then, as we have said, the decision is a no-brainer.  The net would be US$1 million in this extremely simplistic ‘analysis.’
We have asked this question before, but we will ask it again:  what is next for LIAT?  In late 2012, we heard that things would be improving.  LIAT was projecting a loss for that year, but the airline was forecasting a profit of $2.5 million in 2013 and $14.7 million by 2017.  That was the news from then CEO, Ian Brunton, and Chairman, Jean Holder, as they unveiled a new business plan to reverse the carrier’s fortunes.  The plan was comprehensive and included revamping and downsizing its management structure and upgrading the fleet to 50-seat and larger turboprop aircraft.  What happened to the profitability plan?  What worked and what did not?  Most importantly, are we going to continue doing the same old thing for the same old results? Insanity, anyone? Let’s hope not!
We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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