Once again, leaders of several Caribbean governments, which are shareholders in the main lifeline air service to most of the countries in the Caribbean trade group have been forced to intervene to avert a major crisis, albeit with the peak Easter holiday travel period looming.
Dozens of pilots and cabin crews at Antigua-based Leeward Island Air Transport Service (LIAT) had this week threatened strike or serious industrial action because the cash-strapped airline had been experiencing difficulty meeting salaries for March. In fact, payment was one week late.
Usually, the week leading up to Easter is by far the most heavily traveled for the island-hopping commuter service so the heads of governments of major shareholding governments such as Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines among others rushed to Barbados for an emergency meeting to avert industrial action.
Management and crews have been feuding for years. The burden of bridging this worsening divide usually falls on the shoulders of people such as prime ministers Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and Freundel Stuart of Barbados among others as the LIAT service is crucial to tourism in most of the island nations.
Just last week, the LIALPA, the pilots association, had asked shareholding governments “to remove the LIAT management,” citing a plethora of woes and distrust between the two bodies. These include crews working a full week without pay, a shortage of adequate crews to man the new fleet of French-made ATR state of the art aircraft, working without meal breaks and some cockpit teams flying for up to 11 hours a day. The pilots are even fretting about the scrubbing of part of the daily service to Grenada, calling it a mistake and an opportunity for rivals carriers to cash in on.
The union also detailed a string of what it called major blunders by management including the fire destruction of crucial engineering records for aircraft. The records were not backed up off plant as no one bothered to set up a Cloud Storage or Drop Box account, not even to place the data on external hard drives.
The result is tensions between crews and management have reached unprecedented low levels with the union finally calling on governments to remove management before it is too late and before the airline’s coffers run empty.
“We will no longer subsidize the incompetence of management. We are telling you the Caribbean public what management does not want you to know. We have done this hoping that public pressure will cause the shareholders to make the only decision that will save LIAT. Remove the existing management,” LIALPA said in a statement. “Therefore, we reiterate to the board that part of putting LIAT on solid financial footing is to get new management. When a company cannot pay salaries on time, then management must accept that they have failed.”
For countries like Dominica and Grenada, LIAT is a lifeline service. For Barbados, which is a major hub for mega carriers such as American Airlines, Jet Blue, Virgin Atlantic, British and Caribbean Air, LIAT is the main feeder service for islanders headed to Europe and North America from island destinations with runways too short for jet aircraft.
So this is the reason why prime ministers immediately beckon to the call of either management or staff of LIAT whenever there is a crisis-perceived or real — in the sector.
In the meantime, the Caribbean Development Bank has now ensured that it has a seat at the table of any discussions about LIAT as the carrier had borrowed $66M to replace its previous DASH 8 and other aircraft with the newer French-made ATR’s.