BAD RATING: George Nicholas

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CAL chairman resigns for a second time

By Asha Javeed asha.javeed@trinidadexpress.com

Controversial chairman of Caribbean Airlines (CAL) George Nicholas has resigned from the cash-strapped national carrier.

Again.

This time, he has resigned over what he said were statements about his performance by his new line of authority, Transport Minister Devant Maharaj.

Unlike his August 2010 resignation, which was done via e-mail to Maharaj and the CAL board of directors, Nicholas instead ended his 16-month stewardship via letter to corporation sole Finance Minster Winston Dookeran yesterday.

Up to last night, there was no word on whether the resignation had been accepted.

Contacted yesterday around 6.30 p.m., Dookeran said this was the first he had heard of Nicholas' resignation.

Speaking to the Express by phone, Dookeran said he was at Parliament and was engaged in meetings yesterday and did not have any information pertaining to Nicholas' resignation. Asked if Nicholas had formally made any complaints to him prior to his resignation, Dookeran said: "No, I don't know what is the basis of (the resignation)."

Maharaj said yesterday he had not spoken to Nicholas on the matter, but was informed via an e-mail that Nicholas sent, and copied to the CAL board, around midday yesterday.

Questioned on the reason for Nicholas' resignation, Maharaj responded in a phone interview: "He's not fallen out of favour with me. I don't know if I have fallen out of favour with him."

The Express has exclusively reported on CAL's mounting debts—it has promised US$5 million to the Children's Life Fund (which has not yet been paid), it owes millions to National Petroleum (NP) for aviation fuel, $60 million to the Airports Authority, and has been unable to secure financing for two completed ATR aircraft, which it ordered at US$17 million apiece.

On top of that, the company faces a ballooning fuel bill, which the Government subsidises, with additional routes the airline has undertaken in the last year.

Questioned if Nicholas' exit had anything to do with the company's cash crunch, Maharaj responded: "I have directed CAL to be more alive to the financial situation of the company. They have to reduce expenditure and losses.

"I have also asked them to review their proposed routes on whether it makes proper business sense and have them outline their strategy and feasibility to me. I have not perceived any hostility to those suggestions."

In August 2011, Nicholas resigned over a disagreement with Maharaj on the acquisition of two additional aircraft—two 16-year-old 737s from Chile—for CAL.

Nicholas had committed CAL to the acquisition of the aircraft, but purchases over a million dollars by a State enterprise must be approved by the Ministry of Finance.

Following mediation talks with Nicholas and the board when he had first resigned in 2011, Nicholas' resignation was rejected and he remained at the helm of the carrier.

The board—which comprises deputy chairman Mohan Jaikaran, Gizelle Russell, Venosh Sagewan-Maraj, Avedanand Persad and Jamaican businessman Denis Lalor—affirmed their confidence in his chairmanship then.

Asked whether he would mediate a meeting similar to the one which followed Nicholas' previous resignation, Maharaj responded: "On that occasion, he resigned to me and I handled that matter.

"This time he's resigned to the corporation sole. I thank Mr Nicholas for his service and I wish him luck."

It's not the first time Nicholas has run afoul of his line minister.

Shortly after his appointment to the CAL board in November 2010, he disagreed with then Works and Transport Minister Jack Warner over the firing of former chief executive Captain Ian Brunton and CAL's acquisition of multiple ATR aircraft to replace their aging Dash 8s.

Warner had publicly called on the CAL board to resign. The board had met with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to resolve the situation.

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