The current state of LIAT is due to mismanagement of and political interference in its operation. Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, probably the worst chairman of LIAT shareholders group, tried his best to give us the impression over the years that under his watch, business with LIAT had improved. What we have presently is an airline in liquidation and a situation in which Gonsalves has offered to sell his government’s shares in LIAT to Antigua.
Under Dr. Gonsalves’ leadership, LIAT has failed to implement a number of critical decisions which the experts believe would have aided its survival. For instance, a few years ago, Dr. Gonsalves announced that the airline was considering moving into the jet age and consideration would have been given to flying to Miami and Panama. In typical fashion, all of this turned out to be empty Gonsalves rhetoric. Dr. Gonsalves also reported in 2015 that LIAT’s base would be relocated from Antigua to Barbados; that never materialized.
The management and organization of the changeover of LIAT’s fleet (aircraft) was disastrous. At the time, we thought that things could not get any worse, but what we ended up with was the worst. Surprisingly, LIAT purchased a fleet of aircraft that was new, but not improved. The question most people asked then: Who approved that decision to purchase the aircraft for LIAT?
We also recall when one of LIAT’s planes was taken off its scheduled route, to take part in a political campaign stunt just before the general elections of December 2015 in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. A LIAT aircraft, flown by an all-Vincentian crew, brought Dr. Ralph Gonsalves and some of his family and his Unity Labour Party (ULP) supporters, to an unfinished, uncertified, uninsured airstrip at Argyle. Scheduled flights for passengers were disrupted as a result of that stunt.
Notwithstanding the airline’s burgeoning debt, the ULP government continuously pumped millions of dollars into LIAT, to the dissatisfaction of the Vincentian taxpayers. Vincentians were told about the importance of LIAT to this country as the justification even as some Vincentians were calling for an open sky policy, something that Dr. Gonsalves did not entertain for discussion.
The last set of money that was allotted to LIAT was $2.7 million from the government’s COVID-19 stimulus package. The question is: Did anyone know that LIAT was on the verge of collapse before the COVID-19 pandemic? Now, LIAT is in liquidation and owes its Vincentian staff close to $2 million. We hope that the workers are compensated as soon as possible. However, it is ironic to see the mad rush by Dr. Gonsalves to get out of LIAT by offering to sell his government’s shares in LIAT to Antigua.
Dr. Gonsalves continues to demonstrate poor leadership during COVID- 19 pandemic. We saw at the initial stage of the pandemic where his government failed to implement effective policies to manage the disease. Dr. Godwin Friday, president of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and Leader of Opposition, wrote to Dr. Gonsalves expressing his concerns about the situation and made a number of recommendations to the government.
His recommendations included: stricter social distancing controls and guidelines (that) must be advocated publicly and enforced as best we can; all public gatherings should be discouraged and reduced to only what are necessary to maintain essential public services and promote public health; urgently enable testing for the coronavirus in SVG and begin widespread testing; priority should be given to those who come into contact with persons who have tested positive for the coronavirus or are suspected of being infected with it – waiting for symptoms to show before testing is a risky approach that may create more harm.
Dr. Friday advocated for the country’s borders to be closed for a short period, but he made it abundantly clear that our nationals should be allowed to return home.
After a couple months of dormancy, international flights resumed at the Argyle International Airport in early July. The first flight originated out of Miami, the hotspot for the COVID- 19 pandemic in the USA, but it appeared that the government did not have an effective plan to deal with the persons who came into the country. As a result of that flight and a subsequent one, the number of COVID-19 cases has increased rapidly and has caused some panic among the public.
Now, the government, in its usual reactive style, has to rethink its position and has implemented new protocols for flights which are expected to follow. Most people believe that these protocols should have been in place from the first flight. Dr. Gonsalves has also hinted that there may be a suspension of flights from the United States. This shows a lack of vision on the part of Dr. Gonsalves and his government, and amounts to a total failure in the way the government has managed the COVID-19 pandemic.
Undoubtedly, we have seen the incompetence of Dr. Gonsalves’ leadership as chairman of the shareholders of LIAT and leader of this country in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an embarrassment for a chairman of any business venture for that business to collapse under his watch. Dr. Gonsalves has failed as chairman of the shareholders of LIAT and still does not have the vision to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Dr. Gonsalves’ failure to effectively manage, should be no surprise. He has mismanaged the country’s economy for nineteen years. We have the worst economy in the OECS and an overall unemployment rate of 25% before COVD-19 which, according to the Minister of Finance, has increased by 10% since the pandemic. It’s time for the ULP to go. The NDP will make SVG work for all Vincentians.