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Caricom air transportation

By Reginald Dumas

My old friend Jean Holder, chairman of LIAT, recently presented to the airline's major shareholder prime ministers a paper titled "Towards a sustainable regional air transportation service".

Those who have read his extraordinarily informative 2010 book Don't burn our bridges: the case for owning airlines will not be surprised by the theses in his paper. Among other things, he speaks of costs and subsidies, the need for cooperation among government-owned carriers, the fragility of the "privatisation" and "competition" arguments in the Caribbean context, especially given what he calls "over-capacity and under-demand" on certain routes, etc. (But we don't learn, do we. Still mindlessly importing dimly-understood Reaganomic and Thatcherite theories about "the magic of the marketplace", and eschewing the imperative of proper planning, we have seen the collapse and death of private sector airline after private sector airline, whose warning bones untidily litter the Caribbean aviation landscape; REDjet and EZjet are only the latest skeletons. But we remain unwarned.)

Holder recommends that "a special meeting of Caricom Heads of Government be convened early in 2013 to discuss regional air transportation and its critical role in supporting the Caribbean Single Market and Economy." Also, a committee should be established "to examine the feasibility of (Caricom airline alliances)". Deliberations on these matters should take place "with regard to the articles of the Caricom Multilateral (Air Services) Agreement".

No doubt bearing in mind our regional genius for finger-pointing and our obsession with form over substance, he insists that the proposed Caricom summit not restrict itself "to how inefficient and expensive are the existing services paid for by a few countries, although this is a legitimate concern. It should also be about what are the reasons for the inefficiencies and what each member state of Caricom, other destinations currently served, and all tourism partners, such as hoteliers for whom airlift is critical, intend to contribute, financially and otherwise, according to their abilities, to achieve the objectives desired. This is a discussion that many of those who now benefit, and will benefit even more from an improved service, have, to date, refused to entertain." (My emphasis.)

For the better part of 15 years until my resignation, through the administrations of prime ministers Chambers, Robinson, Manning and Panday, I chaired our Negotiating Committee on Air Services Agreements. My then colleagues and I pride ourselves on achieving the first-ever such agreement between T&T and another Caricom country—Saint Lucia—in 1985. More followed.

But we were always aware that T&T could not go it alone, and shouldn't even attempt to do so. We therefore sought to work wherever possible with other Caricom states. We prodded the then CEOs of BWIA and LIAT (Ian Bertrand and Arthur Foster) into signing an agreement on cooperation between the two airlines in various fields. We prepared a brief for PM Robinson on joint and integrated Caricom action; ironically, the day before he was to leave for the summit where he would present the case, Abu Bakr struck. I was adviser to a Saint Lucia delegation in discussions with the UK in London. Meetings were held with the late prime minister of Barbados, Errol Barrow, himself a pilot and bent on regional action in a number of areas, air transportation among them. A Caricom delegation for discussions with the USA was formed—the chair was the late Dr Kenneth Rattray of Jamaica, surely the most knowledgeable person about air services issues this region has ever produced; I was the deputy.

I recount these things merely to indicate that it is and will be more and more necessary for us to work together; our abiding insularity militates against our progress. We have elevated individualism to the level of advanced science. We are rhetoricians extraordinaires; the thunderous resolution at this or that conference is our stock-in-trade. And we could give technical assistance in how to play the blame game.

But after all the decades—and now, the years of decline—we do not yet seem to understand that, as largely indigent solitudes in and around the Caribbean Sea, nearly all of us buffeted by socio-economic turbulence, we need through cooperation to put our necessities for survival in the cockpit with us and seek to steer a prudent course. Airy references to the West Indies cricket team and the UWI as the quintessence of regionalism have lost their lustre; they fall well short of contemporary West Indian reality. I am satisfied that the region has the wit and the intellect to do much better. What we haven't found up to now, despite all our solemn undertakings, is the will.

Several weeks ago I wrote our Minister of Foreign Affairs on Caricom. He has not yet favoured me even with an acknowledgement of receipt of my letter, and it looks as if I shall have to go public. One of the matters I mentioned to him was air transportation. I agree with Jean Holder: the subject is crucial enough for Caricom development to warrant a special summit.

However, technical studies on the broad question of regional access must precede and inform the meeting. Why, for instance, is intra-OECS air travel dropping while regional air travel as a whole is increasing? Why is it much more expensive to go to Dominica through Antigua than through Barbados? For how much longer are taxpayers likely to bear the burden of the indebtedness of CAL and LIAT? What impact would the St Vincent airport, once operational and able to accommodate jets, have on LIAT? How do we market our assets? Do we even know what they are?

This time we must try to escape our proclivity for grandiloquent resolutions and declarations as ends in themselves. After the summit (where I would not expect final decisions to be reached) there must be follow-up by technical teams, with implementable recommendations for later consideration and, I hope, purposeful and effective regional action. If that bruises the fragile egos of some blinkered national officials, busy contemplating their navels, so be it.

• Reginald Dumas is a former ambassador and former head of the Public Service.

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