(RealNews)Regional travel within the Eastern Caribbean remains in disarray, as a lack of investment and regulatory oversight continues to stymie progress in the wake of the dissolution of LIAT 1974.
Since the downsizing of the once iconic LIAT, travellers seeking affordable and accessible flights within the Eastern Caribbean have faced significant challenges. The subsequent establishment of LIAT 2020 by the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) government was initially hailed as a potential solution. However, two years later, Peter Wickham, political analyst and director of the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES) has cast doubt on the prospects of the revived LIAT due to a prevailing lack of investment.
Wickham pointed out that pivotal countries like Barbados, which played a crucial role in LIAT’s previous iterations, have been hesitant to invest under the current economic circumstances, dampening the potential for LIAT’s revitalisation.
“There were certain countries, like Barbados for example, that was critical to LIAT’s future and Barbados essentially expressed the view that right now under the current IMF dispensation, they’re not in a position to make the type of investment in LIAT that they would have in the past and I think that really is the challenge,” Wickham explained.
Additionally, other financially strained islands within the region are finding it increasingly difficult to commit funds for a viable alternative.
The prevailing mood of reduced investment and a lack of commitment have led Wickham to conclude that the revival of LIAT is becoming increasingly unlikely. Wickham said “I’m at the stage where I accept that it is not likely to happen because of the mood of investment.”
While the region awaits the rebirth of LIAT, passengers are suffering from poor service. Wickham highlighted the inadequacies of the private alternatives, particularly InterCaribbean Airlines, which has taken over many of LIAT’s former routes. Despite this takeover, complaints about inefficiencies have multiplied.
“I think the presumption is that we can have a private alternative because it relieves the heads of their need to contribute to something like that. But the reality is that the private alternative has also been woefully inadequate,” he said.
After repeated customer concerns, earlier this week, Guyana’s Aviation Minister, Juan Edghill, said InterCaribbean Airways could face sanctions if the carrier does not avoid prolonged flight delays and cancellations. Prior, Guyana Honorary Consul in Antigua and Barbuda, Robert Reis said there is “growing concern over what appears to be inadequate attention to these matters by the airline and its handling agents”. He said affected travellers report a lack of empathy and accountability, matters that must be addressed promptly.
“The people have been complaining in terms of regional travel. This summer has been a perilous one for regional travel and that’s where the major complaints have been.
“At the level of the traveller, we are feeling the absence of LIAT a lot more than ever before and it’s clear that the private alternative just doesn’t appear to be cutting it certainly in terms of efficiency,” Wickham noted.
Traditionally, competition among carriers helped regulate air travel costs. However, with the emergence of a single dominant player, the need for regional regulation has become evident. “They’re doing as they like in terms of cancellations and what not and treating people pretty badly and they’re able to do so because there’s an absence of regulation that says to them, if you’re operating there are certain basic minimum conditions that you have to provide for travellers,” he said.
Wickham criticized Caricom for not implementing sufficient regulations to prevent such a vacuum in the market. “We’re seeing now the extent to which having a single player or a single major player which is not regulated has created a vacuum and my feeling is that CARICOM dropped the ball.”
In addition, carriers like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have established intra-regional flights which historically was saved for operation by LIAT, leaving Wickham to declare, “it’s a step back, there’s no question about it”.
And while sea transport remains an alternative, Wickham acknowledged its limitations, terming it “flawed with difficulties” and asserting that it cannot be the sole solution to the region’s travel challenges.
Despite these challenges, the Antigua and Barbuda government remains resolute in its pursuit of a revamped LIAT. Acting Prime Minister Steadroy Benjamin delivered an optimistic message, vowing to fight for the airline’s return during the Caribbean Broadcasting Union’s award ceremony on Tuesday night stating, “join me my friend, we’re going to fight for LIAT, we’re going to keep LIAT, we’re going to bring back LIAT to make certain that we deal with transportation in the region”.