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O Brother Where Art Thou?

LIAT we miss you.

Let’s Integrate Any Time

Across the region, in every village, every town, every street, Caribbean people are missing their big brother. Yes, he is annoying: yes, he sometimes has an attitude; and yes, he is often late, and sometimes we wish we had another brother, but we miss him. In fact, we did not realize how much we missed him, until he stopped coming by to visit. Now we are lingering in the valley of ‘if only’.

How many times have we cursed him? How many times have we made up ‘nick-names’ and acronyms to describe his performance? How many times have we made jokes about him? We are all sorry now that he is somewhat gone and we are only now realizing how much we miss him.

Bro, we need you to come back and come back fast! But we realize that we must help you back. You see, our famous big brother, although being there for us, needs our help or he may never come back. So, let us see what we can do to help.

Create a single Caribbean/OECS Airspace

One of the most important things our Big brother LIAT needs is a single Caribbean airspace. We need to take the hassle out of regional travel. When any of us lands in Europe, we enter a single space; the same thing applies when we enter the US or Canada. For those who may not understand this concept it will work like this:

A visitor from a country outside of the single airspace for example Canada, would land in any country in the airspace; the visitor would then go through immigration and customs at that airport; after that the visitor is then cleared to visit any country within the airspace without clearing immigration again. With fewer people travelling, the region needs to add ease of regional travel to its repertoire of Unique Selling Points (USPs). If travel ease can be accommodated, then more people will travel. I hear the naysayers already. What about security? What about drug trafficking and border security? Well, we have a solution for that. The single space will be an opt-in process. In order to access it, patrons pay a small processing fee; upload their passport picture page to the single space app, or website and get a response within 48 hrs. This will mean that all the safety checks can be done prior to the traveler coming to the region. Patrons can also apply as a “trusted traveler” and receive a one-year pass, just like the privileges afforded to Global Entry travelers in the USA. And yes, this has been done before it was done for the cricket World Cup but the legislation which made this possible ceased to exist when the World Cup ended. We should have kept this in place.

A more competitive Global marketplace

People of the region! The new tourism model will not be the same as before. Fewer people will be traveling, so we need to be more competitive. To achieve this, let us join forces to become “one of many.” Many islands, one airport! This effective strategy, with little cost, can make our region more competitive, while securing a greater share of the global tourism market. Have a look at the table below. The region, including our sister countries to the south of us, in Latin America, has the smallest share of global tourism. This means that there is much more business to explore, than what we are currently gaining. A single space can help us grab more of that market!

Cheaper LIAT Flights!

Our big brother LIAT, is too expensive. This is largely because of the high Government taxes and tariffs levied on our “Bro.” The saddest part is that these taxes are being levied by the Governments of the region, LIAT’s “parents”. Which parent would not want his/her child to succeed? The Governments’ parenting model for LIAT needs to change! Whenever a passenger books a ticket, approximately half of the ticket cost is made up of Government taxes. Let us do a considerably basic discretionary income check. If on average the Caribbean salary per month is around $1500 USD and the average LIAT ticket is around $350 to $400 USD, how can anyone afford to travel in this region? Let us consider that of the $1500, $1000 is necessary spending and the other $500 is discretionary, LIAT has already priced itself out of the regional market. (Btw. The economists will say my average Caribbean salary is wrong, and I accept that my figure is too high, meaning the situation is even worse). Caribbean Governments need to either significantly reduce or remove taxes as a CARICOM grouping or as the sub region, maybe just within OECS countries. This will make the single space even more attractive, as ease and price of travel are reduced. If the whole OECS cannot do it, or the whole of CARICOM, a coalition of the willing needs to be created. Like-minded Caribbean Governments can create air bridges between themselves, using the lower revenue model and the single space concept. What if a passenger could travel from Grenada to St Lucia for $100 to $150 USD and not have to clear immigration. What a concept!

Our Brother needs to get his house in Order

Coupled with the reduced fares and the single space, our big brother needs to fix his house. LIAT needs now the most efficient operations, and the best management. We must all admit that post COVID, his punctuality was significantly improved. However, it needs to go beyond that. Post COVID, LIAT needs to realise that fewer people may be traveling globally, so that it needs to run a lean and extremely efficient operation, with as little wastage as possible. This is simply because there may be fewer international passengers coming to the region. Even if there is never a single space, with cheaper flights etc, the post-COVID LIAT should be a company which is buttressed by the efficiency of its operation.

Our Brother has special needs!

A few years ago, the Hon. Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Dr. Ralph Gonsalves was asked if LIAT was not a business. His reply then should have been used as a model for LIAT’s development. He said: “LIAT is not a business; it is a service.” Let me immediately caution, LIAT must be run like a business; it must be efficient and focussed on customer satisfaction and on all best practice benchmarks, fit for the airline industry. However, Dr. Gonsalves is right, it is a service to the people of the region. Therefore, it must be available, and accessible to the region’s people. At its current price point, LIAT has abandoned the very people it is meant to serve. LIAT, as a service is not just meant to ferry people. LIAT is the lifeblood of the intra-regional tourism industry. When a LIAT flight takes off, it is not just moving people; it is carrying a whole industry in its cabin. LIAT is also the opening batsman on the regional integration team. Without LIAT, there is no regional movement. Why are we vacationing in New York and Miami instead of Antigua, Barbados or St. Kitts? The answer for many people is that it is cheaper and easier to travel to North America! Therefore, our brother has special needs. He is carrying the lifeline which makes us a connected Caribbean family. Recently, I heard Caribbean Prime Ministers calling on FLOW and DIGICEL to remove regional roaming charges. Let us also remove taxes on LIAT. We, Caribbean people do not just want to talk to each other; we want to see each other. If Governments are serious about regional integration they need to give our big brother the power to fuel this integration.

Finally we will probably only have one Big brother

I know it may be a hard pill to swallow but we may have to accept one harsh reality. If Liat goes under there will not be anyone else lining up to replace it. All the economists are jumping up and down talking about a private sector model and more private sector involvement. Let me say this, the economists are not the ones putting up the money for a regional airline, so they can talk as much as they want. The current model under which Liat operates is just not an attractive model for investment.

The current models is:

  • Too heavily taxed by Government

  • Too expensive for the customers it is intended to serve because of high Government taxes

  • Not attractive because the airline industry globally is in serious trouble and investors are definitely not lining up to take the place of LIAT

  • It has very little incentive from Governments and not enough support in creating a regional travel market

  • Too much regional bureaucracy and governmental “red tape” which will make any investor very nervous

  • The region is also littered with less and more profitable routes meaning that some islands may get very little service under a private investor.

Therefore private investment is always the preferred option but we have to realize that under a strictly private model the new Liat will not look nearly like the old one.

If it happens expect the new investors to ask for even more concessions and tax breaks than what anyone is contemplating at this point.

My people, we all need to do what we can to save LIAT.

LIAT must fly again. Not as “Leave Island Any Time,” but now, as “Let’s Integrate Any Time” LIAT must be a cheaper and more accessible carrier, operating in a common regional airspace.

My friend Dr. Rudi Webster wrote this recently when commenting on Malcolm Marshall, he said, “Here in the Caribbean, we tend to praise and glorify the achievements of other people, while devaluing and belittling those of our own people.” It’s time to erase that mindset. Remember, if we do not act as our brother’s keeper, we will forever be doomed to rely on others to create for us that which we can create for ourselves!

Brother LIAT, we miss you.

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