Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves says he has received no formal indication from billionaire Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Atlantic, that he is interested in investing in the cash-strapped regional airline LIAT.
“As the chairman of the shareholders, I have not been aware of that. Nobody has contacted me about that. I have seen the reports that Max Fernandez, one of the ministers in Antigua said so,” Gonsalves said on a radio programme here.
“Whether Branson said so in an off-hand way or in a serious manner, I don’t know. You know something rich people say something. I don’t usually jump like that when rich people make a suggestion until I see something really meaningful,” Gonsalves said.
Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines are the major shareholders of the airline, which is seeking an injection of nearly six million US dollars in emergency funding.
Gonsalves, said that what he can say is that a few years ago, LIAT was contemplating, in the context of raising revenues to service Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Central America and Miami.
He said this was discussed at the shareholders level and there was some “rumination on this question at the level of the board of directors …
“From the report that I saw, it would appear as though if there is any interest it is not within the core regional market but from regional jet service which would take you to Central America and in the route where I say going up to the northern Caribbean.”
Gonsalves said that a few years ago when he went to Sao Paolo he took the opportunity to visit the facilities of Embraer, a Brazilian aircraft manufacturer.
“That was all part of parcel of that process of thinking. But then with all the difficulties of financing LIAT for even the core regional market, those ideas were put in cold storage about further expansion, but you may well have to expand to make some more money.
“And if you are expanding to make more money, you might need to find a partner in the jet service area, but I’m not giving legs to what you and I have read about what the minister from Antigua said with relation to Sir Richard Branson because I don’t know anything official,” Gonsalves said.
Meanwhile, the secretary-treasurer of the Waterfront and Allied Workers Union (WAWU) in Dominica, Kertist Augustus, said regional trade unions and workers affiliated to the airline are still in the dark regarding the future of the airline.
Augustus, speaking at Labour Day rally in Roseau on Monday, said that recent discussions with LIAT management had revealed that the airline needed US$5.4 million “to stay afloat.
“A proposal from the shareholder governments and management required the workers to accept a 10 per cent cut in salaries which was initially rejected, started by the pilots. However, in the end, the other trade unions were able to influence the pilots to accept a six per cent cut.
“We are still unsure today as to the status of LIAT,” he added.