Requiem for the ol’ workhorse

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The news, never mind that we’d been expecting it, came as a bit of a shock to many of us – that Leeward Islands Air Transport (LIAT) 1974 Ltd, long on life support, was about to be put out of its misery. Cue a secular version of the NUNC DIMITTIS – our prayer that our good and faithful servant could depart in peace. What a shame! For so many decades, LIAT served us faithfully, we could rely on LIAT, notwithstanding her sketchy on-time record, to move us from island to island with relative ease, and a stellar safety record. Indeed, LIAT made the dream of Caribbean inter-connectedness a reality.

LIAT was founded by the late, great visionary, Sir Frank Delisle in Montserrat on 20 October 1956 with a single Piper Apache flying between Antigua and the Emerald Isle. The airline rapidly expanded, and during the eighties, nineties and early 2000’s, it was arguably not possible to look to the skies for any length of time and not see a LIAT aircraft either coming to, or going from, the V C Bird Airport. We loved our LIAT, warts and all.

True, we made fun of LIAT. After all, it was a regional past-time to crack jokes at LIAT’s expense. The great Caribbean poet, Paul Keens Douglas took lighthearted swipes at LIAT, as did most of us who insisted that the acronym LIAT stood for “Leave Islands Any Time.”  But that is in the distant past. On account of mismanagement over the years, and the recent Covid-19 pandemic, LIAT 1974 Ltd was forced to ground its fleet. Then most of the shareholder governments ran for tall grass, refusing to invest any more money in the ailing airline. Indeed, they all seemed bent on going it alone in providing air travel to and from their various countries, with nary a care as to its critical role in regional connectivity, not to mention jobs.  The airline became LIAT 1974 Ltd under Administration, with a good gentleman named Cleveland Seaforth as the Administrator.

This Seaforth gentleman made a few media appearances in the early days of his appointment, offering words of reassurance, blah, blah, blah, then for the next several months of his stewardship, he was, for all intents and purposes, AWOL. No periodic updates. No meeting with the Union representing the displaced former LIAT workers. No previews as to the plans that he and his team were putting in place for LIAT 1974. He was incommunicado. Hopefully, after he has wrapped up LIAT 1974, taking care of all its obligations as he has promised so to do, he will fly off into the sunset, perhaps on the LIAT 1974 aircraft before it is warehoused in a hangar.

And notwithstanding all the wishful thinking and the glorified flights of fancy concerning LIAT 2020, we believe that it will ultimately be Leave Islands All Together 2020. We have no confidence that Air Peace will deliver on its promises as the senior partner in this venture. Unlike our good attorney general who waxed poetic about LIAT 2020 “rising in the west like a Phoenix from the ashes,” we believe that it is all feel-good, happy-talk.Indeed, even if LIAT 2020 were to take to the skies by the end of this year, we suggest that its flying time would be short-lived, perhaps a few months, because Air Peace is in this venture to make money, and it is difficult to imagine LIAT 2020 making money in this tough market. Remember, the last time that LIAT 1974 Ltd made a profit was in 1982, some forty years ago.

Here is what Joseph E Doway, a Business Restructuring Adviser, and Founder/CEO of Brightmind Advisers and Caribbean Farmers Without Borders had to say about LIAT 1974: LIAT was my first corporate employer in 1973, when I completed my High School education. . . . I worked for the company on Dominica and was later employed by LIAT in Guadeloupe.  . . . I recall that LIAT made its last profit in 1982, and since then it has been struggling. From my research in the 90’s, it was said that LIAT was carrying a very heavy staff load, and the executives were being paid too highly. When I became a private pilot in the early 1990’s, I then realised that LIAT’s burden was brought on by the island governments, because the airline was forced to have high airfares to meet the tax demands of the regional governments. Not only were they collecting airport taxes, but the salary bills for administrative staff were high. Then there were the landing fees and other fees related to flights. And of course, fuel costs . . .”

Sadly, after running LIAT into the ground, the various shareholder governments are not even sticking around for its funeral and interment. Barbados sold its shares to our government for a dollar, and the other administrations have not had much more to offer than token words of how important LIAT is to regional connectivity. Seems, only our Prime Minister sees the importance of LIAT, and will do anything to try to resurrect it. Then again, maybe they are not interested in working with him. For example, the administration made it known that they were looking for local and other investors to chip- in with monies to resurrect LIAT, and it appears as though there were no takers. They probably looked at the numbers and the market and determined that LIAT, never mind a leaner one, would find it difficult to return a decent profit on their investment.

We bid LIAT 1974 ‘adieu’ with a heavy heart. And our grief is made all the more burdensome because we do not have any confidence that this administration, with its woeful record of failing to deliver on promises, can make this one a reality. Requiescat In Pace (RIP), LIAT 1974 Ltd.

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