Concerns surrounding state-owned airlines in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries clearly exist amongst a wide cross section of the Community. Evidence of this arose not only from the fact that fellow writer on Caribbean affairs, David Jessop, tackled this issue in the same week that I did, but also from the comments that have been sent to me.
This commentary features some of the comments that I have received.
A Caribbean person, who travels extensively in the region, bemoaned the failure to establish a regional airline and said the following:
“The Air Jamaica take-over by Caribbean Airlines is merely window dressing – a lost opportunity for meaningful regional integration. Furthermore the name “Caribbean Airlines” is a misnomer to that particular carrier. It is a Trinidad Airline and not behaving in a Caribbean friendly manner, which is perfectly fine as T&T are entitled to do what they wish with their resources – money and oil. But it shouldn’t pretend to be something it is not!!
Our leaders seem incapable of collaboration for the greater good. So it would appear that, unless and until, a supra-structure of a Caribbean Commission, Caribbean Parliament and Caribbean Council are established to serve the best interests collectively for the Caribbean region, we are not going to have any meaningful change in areas like this.
Secondly, an inappropriate business model is still being used to operate Caribbean Airlines at great cost and heavy losses. We now have to compete in a 21st century global air travel industry. We need to look around and see how others do it – it can be done. Thirdly the airline should be run by business people on commercial principles”.
A seasoned Caribbean public servant who has served the area regionally and internationally, asks the pertinent question: “Would a regionally owned airline be financially viable? Essentially combining Caribbean Airlines with LIAT. Should the region give up the idea of a regional airline if collectively they cannot afford it”?
A former foreign diplomat, who served in the Caribbean for many years, seemed to anticipate that question by saying: “It would be interesting to know whether an efficiently-run purely inter-island air service could be sufficiently financially viable to avoid a drain on the public purses of the countries served”.
And then a representative of the airline industry in the region summed up the issue of a regional airline to serve the needs of the region as follows:
“That regional airline has existed for over 50 years. It was once owned by BWIA but was then sold to Court Line. After the demise of Court Line in 1974 the prospect of losing this essential link was about to become reality and it was taken over by the governments of the Caribbean to ensure that the intra-Caribbean travel needs of the people would continue to be served. Other airlines and their state owners pursued vanity airlines as you have described while LIAT did the unglamorous donkey work.
“LIAT can be self-sufficient. It probably should not be expected to be profitable considering the role it plays in the economic life of the region. It is, after all, an essential service that no outside player has wanted to undertake. It can easily acquire the capability for modest linkages with the Americas to ensure that we will not be cut off.
“I am convinced that I am correct, that Caribbean Airlines’ absence would not be missed in the marketplace. The same is not true of LIAT. History has not shown that Trinidad and Tobago is supportive of LIAT, but it is mightily proud of its flagship. Are they ready to allow it to sink? Who knows? Oil don’t spoil”.
What emerges from all this is a clear concern that the collective interest of the region is not being served by the continuous attempt to maintain “nationally-owned” airlines to fly internationally, particularly when they are government-owned and they become a burden on tax payers.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on loss-making airlines over the years that could have been spent on building needed infrastructure or on education, training in new technology and health.
A further dimension of this issue is whether even the CARICOM region as a whole would be able to operate a profitable Caribbean airline that flies internationally? There is no evidence to suggest that such a regionally-owned airline would be more profitable than the nationally-owned airlines that operate now and that have operated in the past.
It may very well be that the countries of CARICOM should focus their attention on improving their tourism product to make it competitive and superior in the global market place. They can then forge strategic alliances with foreign carriers and with tour operators and travel agents to ensure sufficient international airlift into their countries.
Another certainty in this entire issue is that travellers within the Caribbean are being subjected to high cost of travel that includes high government taxes. Beyond that, the service being provided by both the present scheduled airlines – Caribbean Airlines and LIAT – is less than reliable. Frequent flight delays and in some cases cancellations have cost Caribbean travellers and tourists both money and inconvenience.
It may be the case that, even collectively, CARICOM governments cannot afford an international carrier, and, therefore, they should abandon the idea. In doing so they might more reasonably focus their resources instead on an airline that provides inter-Caribbean service only.
Inter-Caribbean service is vitally needed for tourism and commerce and there are no foreign carriers providing such a service. The Caribbean business community that benefits from inter-Caribbean transport should be encouraged to participate in such an inter-Caribbean airline, sharing the risks, contributing to decision-making at board level and providing the benefit of their business experience and knowledge.
The agony of Caribbean transport is crying out for focused attention.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Visiting Fellow London University and former Caribbean diplomat)