Friday, January 19, 2018

Moment for facing reality about LIAT

Express editorial logo156

Mark Fraser

In a welcome show of plain-talking candour, St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonzalves has blamed “lack of discipline” by some LIAT staff for the airline’s present woes. The Caribbean, used to hearing Dr Gonzalves scapegoating Trinidad and Tobago in general, and Caribbean Airlines in particular, must have done a double take last week.

The flamboyant prime minister instead directed his fire at internal factors now contributing to the widely recognised decline of the airline. Jointly owned by mostly Eastern Caribbean governments, LIAT remains the vital but sorely troubled intra-regional air transport utility.

Patience, long worn thin with its serial failings, appears now to have snapped. With horror stories about LIAT’s performance being told and retold across the region, defenders of the airline have seldom been in shorter supply. 

LIAT has inevitably flown into a severe storm of criticism for the shortcomings that have marked its operations. At a time of high demand for air transport, LIAT has evidently been at its worst.

It has been loudly denounced for bad “customer service” by one regional hotelier, calling bluntly for heads to roll. From all indications, however, service to LIAT’s customers will only get worse.  

The airline admits to contending, with marked lack of success, against what it calls “challenges”. These include equipment breakdown, which is a liability facing all airlines, and which should be provided for in management planning.

Moreover, the need to take staff offline for retraining to fly newly acquired aircraft denies the opportunity to bring all hands on deck, as it were. This has been especially punishing at a time when inordinately delayed passengers are banging in exasperation on unmanned counters and looking in vain for supervisors to come clean with them.

From all accounts, the LIAT management and staff, fully aware of their customers’ pain, have done little to win friends and influence any people. An uncaring posture results from the effective near-monopoly status enjoyed by LIAT in much of the region.

Still, the struggling airline and moreso its suffering passengers are entitled to sympathy from T&T. This country is, however, otherwise burdened with its own, larger-scale, challenges of keeping Caribbean Airlines, and Air Jamaica, in the air. 

As necessary and feasible, CAL should, indeed, seek to rescue regional travellers, tourists and business people stranded by its junior partner in Caribbean aviation. Its doing so should deflect the usual harping and carping by Dr Gonzalves and others about some presumed LIAT entitlement to a T&T fuel subsidy. The subsidy, so burdensome to T&T taxpapers, facilitates CAL’s efforts to meet its service commitments. It’s now obvious, however, to Dr Gonzalves and others, that getting a deal at the fuel pump is not the simple, single, solution to LIAT’s getting its house in order.