Thursday, April 18, 2024

Clearing the air on LIAT


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THIS IS in reply to a letter (DAILY Nation of July 20) by someone very critical of LIAT’s services, its management and its board, and signed by “Rufus Letang” who describes himself as a frequent flyer within the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States – implying that he is a LIAT frequent flyer. First, a review of those people travelling on LIAT over the past five-year period shows no one named “Rufus Letang” as one of our passengers, either “frequent” or otherwise.  Secondly, the kind of matters raised in the letter signed by “Rufus Letang” suggest that they are being raised by a person with more than a passing knowledge of some technical matters at LIAT, which might more be expected from an employee, past or present, disgruntled or otherwise, than from someone whose only association with LIAT is that of a passenger.  While these circumstances may throw some doubts on the credibility of the writer, it does not obviate the need for a response from LIAT to the matters raised in an effort to clear the air and throw some light on them. The following responses are therefore being made: 1. Any analysis of LIAT’s current operations and performance must take into consideration its history and its mandate – both of which have been difficult. For more than 50 years it has been undercapitalised and has had to struggle against fierce competition. It would be difficult to identify another carrier that seeks to fulfil a mandate to service both social and commercial routes involving some 1 000 flights a week over a complicated network, without receiving subsidies to support its daily operations. While it is true that it still has competition, it has to be admitted that it is not as severe as before. This is as a result of the fact that the other contenders have fallen out along the way because of the exhaustion of the race, or as a result of good negotiations by LIAT.  2. The three shareholders of LIAT value the critical nature of its service highly and have been prepared to subsidise this service in the interest of the total Caribbean. The investments of the shareholders mentioned by the writer, known as “Rufus Letang”, were to settle debt and pay severances, and matters of this kind, thereby giving the carrier a fighting chance of survival. It would otherwise have had to close, as many others around the world have done in the past two years. Once it was set on its feet, it was given a mandate to operate after 2006 without any further financial help. LIAT took that opportunity to move from the “cash-strapped carrier” – a phrase known to the Press – to one that has done well in the past two years: a performance  that has been matched by few international carriers on many continents. LIAT knows better than most that its shareholders have no more money to give it. 3. In spite of the remarks from the writer about customer service, many passengers remark that the majority of LIAT’s staff around the Caribbean, in  22 different countries, speaking four different languages, deliver a good service in respect of thousands of flights every week. We get those good reports also, although they never appear in the Press. It is however a stressful industry, and LIAT does not always get it right. One of its biggest challenges has always been customer service and it continues to work on it. It has achieved some commendable on-time performances, but never as many as it wishes. During the summer, especially July and August, as schedules change and planes are flying full, there have been more challenges with on-time performance and baggage. LIAT knows that it is no excuse to point out  that this is reflected in airline performance all over the world in the summer.   4. If, as I believe, the writer has more inside knowledge of LIAT’s business affairs than if he were simply a frequent flyer, then he or she also knows what is involved in delivering fleet renewal from a technical and financial perspective. LIAT knows better than anyone else its need to modernise the fleet. It is therefore currently fully engaged in the process of defining the overall strategy and receiving expert opinion from high level studies in pursuit of fleet renewal.  5. The writer must also be fully conversant with the debate between LIAT and certain sections of its staff about the opening of the third base in Port-of-Spain. This is a matter of negotiation between LIAT and two unions about safety, security considerations and other conditions of service of the move. Further, the display of knowledge by the writer about the costs to LIAT and the possible savings from the base could only have come from information put into the public domain by LIAT’s management. It is hard to determine if by making these points the writer means to support the case being made by LIAT or not. This would be welcome, though unexpected. 6. The idea that somehow LIAT wants to downgrade the Barbados base for pilots stationed there has been a recurring decimal. The purpose of this  accusation seems to be to stir up animosity between the three shareholders and between the pilots from different islands. It is absurd and will not work. It is, however, a very interesting point to be made by a mere frequent flyer.   7. As is customary, LIAT has modified its summer schedule to cope with the pattern of demand that arises at this time each year. Concerns that changes in overnight arrangements for crews during the eight-week summer period are intended to reduce the importance of the Barbados base are misinformed. The summer schedule sees a strengthening of our Barbados operations. SoftwareAdditionally, in LIAT, as in most other airlines today, crewing decisions are guided by specialised crew management software that feature in a range of factors, including schedule requirements, crew duty times, regulatory requirements, and cost efficiencies.  8. Similar notice may be taken of technical questions about compressors, maintenance, and so on. I suggest the writer discuss them with his/her head of department. 9. LIAT’s mandate and route network orientation means that the airline continues to provide vital lifeline services throughout the Eastern Caribbean. Delays in start-up of the cargo service reflect a number of developments. First and foremost have been delays by external regulatory authorities, notwithstanding earlier commitment in providing required approvals. With the spike in summer passenger demand the decision was taken to retain the designated aircraft in its passenger configuration. Start-up of the cargo service is now scheduled after the summer when the aircraft will be converted to freighter mode. 10. There might be many answers to the question, whether LIAT is running out of cash again. If it were running out of cash, it would be in the same situation as many other companies, institutions and governments in the region and outside the region which are having a difficult time in present difficult economic circumstances. Many are seeking to cut costs and are laying off staff. LIAT has striven as a good employer to keep its staff on board through many difficult years. If, however, it cannot eventually cut its costs and grow its revenue, it will run out of cash.  11. Management is, however, calling on all parties at LIAT to take action to avoid practices that cause it to lose money unnecessarily. LIAT is currently paying its way, but it is very much aware that those who wish it no good are not averse to causing it to lose money, or even to close. 12. Finally, it would not be too much to request that those who wish to abuse and criticise one of the region’s essential service providers show their face and sign their real names. Desmond Brown is   Manager, Corporate Communications of LIAT.

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