Antigua's Lovell wants PM to adopt different approach to LIAT

Antigua's Lovell wants PM to adopt different approach to LIAT

Sunday, July 05, 2020

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ST JOHN'S (CMC) — The leader of the main Opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) Harold Lovell has disagreed with the position adopted by Prime Minister Gaston Browne in handling the situation regarding the cash-strapped Antigua-based regional airline, LIAT.

Browne stayed away from Friday's virtual Caribbean Community (Caricom) summit and said his island would remain committed to the regional integration movement even as it registered again its opposition to the decision of regional shareholder governments to liquidate the airline.

He also warned that if the majority shareholding group of the regional airline is “opportunistically, allowed to collapse this regional institution” and form a new entity without honouring the airline's liabilities to creditors; “this will be a form of State banditry”.

During Friday's Caricom meeting, Barbados and St Vincent and the Grenadines—two of the major shareholders — announced that talks had started with the operators of at least six airlines in a bid to provide the services that LIAT had been providing.

But Lovell, a former aviation and finance minister here, told radio listeners that Prime Minister Browne should have used more moderate language in his pronouncements on the matter.

“We're in a very serious and very difficult situation and you require at this stage the art of knowing what to say, when to say it and to whom to say it,” Lovell said, adding “when you start using the type of language that the prime minister likes to use, I don't think you begin to open doors. You close doors, and this is a time when Antigua really needs as much goodwill as possible.

“We are going down the wrong track,” Lovell said, noting that he had ministerial responsibility for LIAT for a five-year period, and knows what's needed at this time.

“I was minister responsible for aviation between 2004 and 2009 and I have had the opportunity to meet, to discuss, and I have an idea of some of the difficulties that LIAT has faced. This is not the first time that we are here. After 1974, we had great problems with LIAT and LIAT almost went belly-up, and at that time the options were the same — to restructure, to leave it as it is or to collapse it,” he said.

“We have not restructured. We have not restructured in a meaningful way … A lot of the governments have been saying we need to find a way to restructure. LIAT is not easy to carry and if the governments of Barbados, Antigua, St Vincent and Dominica cannot carry LIAT, obviously there's a deep problem and we keep kicking the can down the road.”

He acknowledged that there is need to 'slim down' LIAT adding “we need to recognise that a lot of things that we have been doing as far as LIAT is concerned need to be done differently.

“We need to look to see how we can build allies. We should be reaching out to the CAL (Trinidad owned Caribbean Airlines) to see whether we can find ways with CAL and with other airlines that use the same aircraft, the ATRs, so that we can get economies of scale in terms of insurance and other costs that can be shared; like ordering of parts.

“All of these things require a certain degree of leadership that can reach out, build bridges, mend fences and find ways to reduce the operating costs for LIAT at all levels,” Lovell added.

Earlier this week, the chairman of the shareholder governments, St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves sought to assure employees that payment of outstanding salaries and arrears “will be urgently addressed”.

The airline owes its staff an estimated EC$94 million (One EC dollar = US$0.37 cents) in severance and holiday payment, which it is unable to pay.

Last weekend the major shareholder governments decided to liquidate the airline, which has had ongoing financial woes.

Gonsalves said a report from the board of directors and the management on the critical financial position of the airline “particularly on the issue concerning winding up or liquidation and taking the decision for a general meeting of all the ordinary shareholders of the company to consider a resolution for the winding up, dissolution of the company”.

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