By Bert Wilkinson : CARIBBEAN LIFE
If all goes well in the coming months a new, Antigua-based island hopper — LIAT 2022 instead of problem-plagued LIAT 1974 — will fly to regional destinations, bringing relief to several Eastern Caribbean island nations, which depend largely on air transport for tourism and basic purposes.
Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua, which has the largest employee and asset base of the old LIAT 1974 limited, is anxious to get a rebranded LIAT back in the skies across the region from Guyana in the south to islands in the central and Eastern Caribbean.
In the past week, the Antiguan government and CFA Global, a private Chinese company signed a memorandum of understanding with the firm taking an undisclosed amount of minority shares in the new company.
The plan is to re-fleet the company, possibly with Airbus 330s and 320s in addition to the newer French-made ATR turboprops, which had been a staple aircraft for LIAT 1974 before its spectacular collapse two years ago.
Browne told listeners on a weekend call-in program that the idea is to get planes back in the air flying to former destinations as far south as Trinidad and Guyana. It is unclear whether neighboring Suriname, a fellow CARICOM member nation, is also in the plans of those in charge.
Beset by debt, high salaries and being forced to fly to non-profitable routes among other issues simply to service shareholding member nations, the carrier collapsed under the weight of mounting debt, perennial squabbling by shareholding Caribbean governments and pressure from labor unions to meet compensation packages for hundreds of employees.
The situation, of course, was not helped by the COVID-19 pandemic, which had shuttered airports around the world and had severely restricted air travel.
“We still have at least two entities that are negotiating with the administrator to become shareholders within the LIAT company.
It may have to be a new company because when you look at what is happening presently, the threats that are made, the demands that are made by past staff, members of staff and the union, I am not even sure now that LIAT 1974 Limited will be viable so there may have to be a LIAT 2020, recapitalised and start as a new entity,” PM Browne said.
Because of its base in Antigua, its large employee base and other forms of vested interests, Antigua has been leading regional efforts to ensure there is a viable island hopper available to the Eastern Caribbean in particular even as Barbados and St. Vincent have virtually given up on the airline because of its slew of problems.
Others like Dominica and Grenada have pledged to invest cash in any new entity that takes to the skies. LIAT 1974 limited has been carrying debts at close to $100 million.
The collapse of the carrier has meant that air captains, flight attendants, engineers and other staff have yet to receive their full amount of severance pay.
The airline pilots association has repeatedly stated that some of its members are destitute, have lost homes, endured the stress of broken marriages, while others are engaged in menial jobs just to survive while leaders and others haggle over severance packages.