By Sir Ronald Sanders
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States of America and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto)
The closure of LIAT in 2020, without establishing air transport to fill the vacuum, has led to chaos in regional transportation, gravely affecting the movement of people and goods throughout the Caribbean region.
Anyone, who has tried to travel from one country to another in the Caribbean, can attest to the nightmare it has become. Whereas in the heyday of LIAT, there were at least 2 daily flights from which to choose, allowing for transfers through the airline’s main hubs in Antigua and Barbados, flights are now few and far between. Additionally, connectivity from one Caribbean island to another, which physically neighbour each other, often requires travel to Miami or some other country with overnight stays, lengthening journeys and increasing costs.
Gone are the days when businesspersons, consultants, marketing agents and others could get on a plane in the morning, conduct business in another country, and return to their home base by the evening. Tourists on multi-destination holidays, and even those who would like to make a day-trip to another island that they can see on the horizon, cannot now even contemplate such a prospect. The connectivity simply does not exist.
Caribbean Airlines does not have enough planes or frequency of travel to fill the travel needs; additionally, it only flies to some Caribbean destinations from its base in Trinidad and Tobago. Attempts by two other small airlines to ply some of the routes are also too infrequent and, regrettably, undependable. The owners and management have good intentions, but lack of adequate capital has restricted their ability to invest in aircraft, staff and other costs that would serve the region’s needs.
Two vital things have resulted from all this. First, the objective of achieving the social and economic integration of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is being eroded. People to people contact – and therefore familiarity and cohesion – has been set back. Second, the realization of the long-vaunted Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) is being retarded. The marketing of goods and services between CARICOM countries, which is one of the fundamental requirements of a Single Market, has effectively been paused.
Other current objectives, such as establishing the means for food security and making the CARICOM area more self-sufficient and less dependent on goods and services imported from outside the region, are also being adversely impacted.
While no one can discount the anxiety of governments, in the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, when costs escalated and revenues declined, causing some owner-governments to want to shed the increasing expenses associated with LIAT, the decision to collapse it with nothing to replace it – at least substantially – has led to the present difficulties.
It is also understandable that, at a time when governments were confronting decreased revenues and increased expenditure to support the poor and vulnerable as well as escalated costs to fight the Coronavirus and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, cuts in expenses had to be made. LIAT looked then as an opportunity to be rid of what might have been regarded as an unending hemorrhaging of taxpayers’ money that was needed for pressing domestic priorities.
In this regard, LIAT workers, who continuously demanded, increased wages and greater compensation packages, might reflect on whether they could have acted in ways that would have helped to maintain the viability of the airline in everyone’s interest, including their own. Had LIAT continued to operate in conditions of cooperation, all might have continued to reap the benefits it delivered.
All parties should learn a lesson from the LIAT experience, including the unemployment of its workers. If no lesson has been learned about how cooperation can help to maintain jobs, then that history will repeat itself.
Partially good news is that the Caribbean Development Bank is alert to the issue and is considering ways to help to address it. The CDB’s Board of Directors, responding to a request from the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines has approved consultancy services. These services will suggest “urgent provisional measures” to re-establish regular air transport services within the sub-region. To be clear the Board’s action is better than nothing, but, by itself, it is not enough. Fortunately, the Board approval allows for consideration of a more permanent solution “in a subsequent intervention”.
In short, this decision by the CDB Board, while encouraging, does not solve the immediate problem, nor will it contribute to doing so in the near term. This is not a criticism of the Bank. For while it is a “development” bank, it is still a bank that has responsibilities to its shareholders who contribute the capital to the bank or are active in helping to raise it from hemispheric and international institutions. The bank has to balance its role in “development” with its obligation to sustainability.
By any objective analysis, the current crisis of inter-regional travel is a direct result of the decision to collapse LIAT without measures to fill the gap caused by its shuttering. Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, is making a valiant attempt to keep a rump LIAT in the air, recognizing that it was the main intra-island air carrier in the Eastern Caribbean. But, LIAT presently operates only a few flights, largely with the singular support of the Antigua and Barbuda government. LIAT’s flights are currently less than 90% of its 500 weekly flights prior to its closure. The number of flights is not enough.
To emphasize the point, reduced airlift capacity has stymied the movement of goods, services and people to the detriment of tourism, trade, employment, business activity and social relations in the region. These conditions should not be allowed to continue. The region is harming itself.
More than 9.1 million tourists visited the Caribbean in 2019. The majority of them arrived on aircraft and traversed the region on regional airlines. The COVID-19 pandemic affected those arrivals until most of 2021, but borders have opened, and people are travelling again – and want to continue travelling – in large numbers. In addition to passenger travel in the region, the volume of freight by air transport in the Caribbean, which had increased by more than 50% before COVID, is severely constrained. That business is still there and can contribute to jobs, earnings, profits, and market cohesion, but not without airlift.
Undoubtedly, the kind of services provided by LIAT provided are sorely missed; and are urgently needed.
Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com