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By Orville Williams

While the restructuring of regional carrier LIAT remains polarising, Minister of Tourism Charles Fernandez said its continued operation will prove vital in talks with some major international airlines.

The local air travel sector has taken a big hit from the Covid-19 pandemic, with several incoming carriers having to scale down, or in some cases, completely suspend flights to the island. Meanwhile, the financial struggles being faced by LIAT have only served to compound that situation from a regional standpoint.

Efforts to maintain control and improve the efficiency of the Antigua-based carrier will likely increase over the course of the next few months, as Fernandez explained in Parliament yesterday, LIAT will play a critical role in the government’s negotiations with airlift partners.

“Just last week, Aer Lingus contacted us and they want to fly to the Caribbean, so they will be offering a flight – Dublin, Manchester, Antigua. Of course, this is important for us because it will open up the northern part of England.

“Now, when we did the Request for Proposal (RFP) and we’re going to present to them, you know what is going to be the most important component of that RFP? The fact that LIAT operates out of Antigua – that is an advantage, that is an incentive.

“So, you can bring all your passengers here, whether it’s for St Vincent, Dominica [or] Grenada [and] LIAT is going to be able to [step in]. That is more job opportunities, that is more opportunities for growth for LIAT and that is why LIAT is so important,” Fernandez declared. 

Whether these negotiations will actually come to fruition, or how soon they may be materialised, remains to be seen. However, the mere potential must come as a sweet song to the ears of hundreds – if not thousands – of employees in this and adjoining sectors, who have been displaced by the sustained fallout.

Fernandez added that they have had other, more concrete discussions, which should have bore fruit last year, if not for the impact of the pandemic. He said further, the interest from these major airlines amid the pandemic, proves the worth of Antigua and Barbuda from a global perspective. 

“[In] February 2020, myself and Mr Colin James met with the head of Frontier Airlines, we did a presentation to them and [the airline] was to start [service] in December 2020. Of course, Covid has hit that back, but there is still interest there and we are going to continue to pursue it.

“Aer Lingus has a fleet size of 52 aircraft [and] in 2018, their revenue was 2.2 billion euros; Frontier [has] 104 aircraft and in 2018, [they made] over 2 billion USD, so these are not small or insignificant airlines. Again, it [goes] to show that Antigua still is becoming noticeable, it is vibrant [and] it’s an important part of the Caribbean.”

The minister also noted that though airlift did not return to pre-Covid levels during the latter part of last year and the start of this year, the level of operations was enough to satisfy the ministry that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel.