LIAT Pilots Disappointed With Statement By St Vincent’s PM

(CMC) – The Leeward Islands Airlines Pilots Association (LIALPA) Monday said it “is disappointed and saddened” by recent statements made by Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves regarding the cash-strapped regional airline, LIAT.

In a statement, LIALPA described Gonsalves statement as “unfortunate” adding that after two years of being silent he found it “most fitting to chastise the workers in their time of need.

“We view the notion that, workers are to be blamed for the failure of the airline inaccurate and a cheap shot. According to media reports, a decision was made by you and other shareholder Prime Ministers to liquidate the company in June 2020.

“The airline has always been tumultuous for reasons beyond the staff’s control. What should be of supreme importance to you Sir, and the other Shareholder Prime Ministers during these unprecedented times of financial fallout for workers, is to collectively solve the issue of owed entitlements to the terminated workers.”

Last week, Prime Minister Gonsalves, who spoke of the challenges he faced as he was preparing for a number of overseas trips, including travel through the Caribbean, said he has a “plan in mind” for regional air travel.

But while he did not disclose the plan to listeners of a radio programme here, Gonsalves said that some strong critics of former regional carrier were now wishing for its return as air transportation across the region had gotten worse since the demise of the airline.

The airline is owned by the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said previously that a decision had been taken that would allow Barbados and SVG to turn over their shares in LIAT to St John’s for one EC dollar (One EC dollar=US$0.37 cents).

He said that as recently as April 7, 2020, he went to Parliament with the supplementary appropriation bill and budgeted one million US dollars in and effort “to give it a final shot.

“But then one of our partners at the time in the regional setup, did not want to put in anymore, at least had gotten fed up. And then some of the pilots and some of the flight attendants and some of the engineers, they believed that the thing would’ve just continued going like it was going. When I required reasonableness, they weren’t reasonable.”

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Browne appealed to Caribbean trade unions to re-think their positions regarding the latest offer made to laid-off workers of the airline.

The Antigua and Barbuda government said it was providing two million dollars “to meet partial satisfaction of the cash component of the compassionate pay-out” to former local employees of the regional airline, LIAT.

In its statement, LIALPA said that terminated workers have been on the breadline since April 2020 and are in dire straits.

The pilots told Gonsalves that as far back as 2013 during a radio interview he said LIAT is not an ordinary business “and without it we could not get from one island to another… (and) you created the rationale that we were lucky if it broke even.

“In at least three of the last audits conducted, the directors of the board …admitted that the airline was insolvent. They however were guaranteed that the shareholders would support, finance, and also amend laws to keep the airline operating.

“The workers were not responsible for the high taxes on tickets, the scheduling of unprofitable routes, the selection of various management, the costly selection of the ATR aircraft, the hangar fire which destroyed vital technical historical records for the aircraft and for the hurricanes which ravaged the region.”

The pilots recalled that in the 2019 meeting held in Barbados between the shareholders and unions to discuss the state of the airline, a request for a pay cut of 10 per cent was made to the unions. LIALPA agreed to a six per cent cut, but the proposal was ultimately refused by the company and viewed as not being sufficient.

The pilots said that statements made by some regional governments impacted the confidence of travellers and despite the financial problems the workers remained loyal “every step of the way…making many sacrifices” even whilst salaries were paid late and no increases for several years.

“They have lent their unwavering support, aiding the airlift in moving people and supplies in and out of islands which were destroyed by hurricanes. They brought nurses from Cuba to various islands in the fight against the pandemic.

“Despite these impediments, these issues did not hamper our drive to be one of safest airlines in the region if not in the Western Hemisphere. LIAT had an envious safety record transporting yourself, other Prime Ministers, citizens, and tourist alike.

“Now, to be discarded as used and spent entities taking one for the political team, you have showed no empathy to the plight of the LIAT workers. We don’t need platitudes or trying harder or influencing, we need leadership from the four shareholder Prime Ministers.”

The pilots said they hoped the shareholder governments would emulate the “commendable responsible leadership” of the St. Lucia Prime Minister Phillip J. Pierre, who announced that his administration would be honouring the debt of the St Lucian workers of LIAT.