Comments after CARICOM briefing damaged LIAT’s reputation: Gonsalves

Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves says public comments about LIAT’s latest financial crisis made by participants at last month’s Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Inter-sessional summit in St. Kitts-Nevis have not helped the Antigua-based regional carrier in need of US$5.4 million to continue serving regional destinations.

Gonsalves told Parliament earlier this week that the principal shareholder government of LIAT provided information to the CARICOM meeting about the current financial condition and the immediate prospects for the survival or the development of LIAT in its existing framework.

Gonsalves, who is chair of LIAT’s shareholder governments, said some persons attending the CARICOM gathering “did not heed my request, settled and agreed upon, not to address this matter publicly until the shareholders and other prospective governments had an opportunity to resolve further some thorny issues touching and concerning LIAT”.

He told legislators that, unhelpfully, some participants at the conference “could not resist the temptation on leaving the conference to alarm the public with declarations such as ‘LIAT will run out of cash to operate in 10 days’, ‘LIAT will close down by the end of March 2019 if reluctant shareholder governments do not cough up some money’ ‘Even Ralph is fed up with LIAT’”.

The LIAT shareholder governments are Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines with Trinidad and Tobago having a one per cent shareholding, which Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley said his government does not acknowledge.

Rowley told a news conference at the Piarco International Airport on his return home from the February 27-28 summit that CARICOM leaders were told at the meeting in St. Kitts that LIAT has enough “cash to last for 10 days”.

Gonsalves said that one or two others who were not even at the conference decided, with hearsay and misinformation, to spread further fear and alarm.

“One minister even dusted off an insulting and tired declaration that his government ‘is not going to be an ATM machine for LIAT,” Gonsalves said, an apparent reference to Barbados Tourism Minister, Kerrie Symmonds, who was quoted in the media as saying that Bridgetown, the airline’s biggest shareholder would not be the only ATM for LIAT.

Symmonds said that while Barbados remained interested in keeping the airline running, other governments would have to contribute.

Gonsalves told lawmakers that history, in all its banality, through infelicitous language, repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

“The farcical outbursts had a predictably damaging effect on LIAT in terms of reputational damage, uncertainty among the large travelling public across the region and a rush by LIAT’s creditors for monies owed before the supposedly imminent arrival of doomsday.”

Gonsalves said that it is precisely because of his appreciation of the likely adverse impact of “unfiltered, unnecessarily alarmist or even wrong pronouncements, that I had urged restraint in public utterances for the time being on this most vital matter”.

He said that such pronouncements even prompted inquiries to LIAT’s management from the Federal Aviation Authority of the United States about LIAT’s capacity to service its routes to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

“In the wake of this unwarranted and gratuitous damage to LIAT, its management was compelled to issue a statement distancing itself from the doomsday scenarios and provide assurances of continued services,” Gonsalves said prior to travelling to Barbados for a meeting of the major shareholder governments, along with the airline’s management and the trade unions representing its employees, to discuss the latest crisis facing the airline.