THE Prime Minister implied the Government will not step in to save cash-strapped LIAT by reversing TT’s past surrender of most of its shareholding, speaking at a briefing on Monday at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s.
The covid19 pandemic financially hurt LIAT, which reportedly now has a debt of EC$35 million ($87 million), far beyond the usual support given by shareholders, the governments of Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) , and Dominica. LIAT is based in Antigua and Barbuda.
Caricom chairman SVG Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves recently said LIAT's board under Owen Arthur, former Barbados prime minister, said LIAT cannot pay its debts and should be wound up. However Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne recently declared he would never support any unconditional liquidation of the airline without the creation of a new LIAT.
Newsday asked Dr Rowley if TT should take over LIAT or its route.
“No,” he replied. “TT does not have a major interest in LIAT.”
He said TT was once a major shareholder in LIAT.
“Over time the Government of TT took the decision to get out of the LIAT operations. We ended up with about six per cent of the shares as a residual and what we have done and we did tell you this earlier, we have allowed the Government of Barbados to use those six per cent by proxy. So the Government of Barbados is responsible for speaking for TT with respect to that six per cent of shares.
“So we are not involved at all in the LIAT business. And as of now we have no plans to get involved in the LIAT arrangement. LIAT is owned by other Caricom territories, and with the blessing of TT."
With some routes overlapping between LIAT and Caribbean Airlines (CAL), Rowley said the Government will leave it to CAL to protect its interest and that of the people of TT, all while serving the region.
Lionel Hurst, chief of staff at Antigua and Barbuda Office of the Prime Minister on Monday told Newsday that the situation facing LIAT is a major issue in his country.
He said Rowley’s lack of interest came as no surprise given TT having lodged its shares with Barbados. Hurst said letters of invitation from Browne to attend a meeting to discuss LIAT had included Rowley’s name as a courtesy. The meeting was due to be held on Monday but had to be delayed to a date to be set due to the inability to attend of Barbados PM Mia Mottley.
Hurst said, “Antigua and Barbuda’s objective is to save the 400 jobs at LIAT, many who are people from other parts of the Caribbean. They have been very loyal to LIAT and Antigua and Barbuda. They have built homes and raised families here and been very loyal to the Caribbean.” He said many LIAT staff had been working without receiving a penny in remuneration for several months and he wants them to be okay. Newsday asked if LIAT’s future was a big deal to his country.
Hurst replied, “At a time when the covid pandemic has decimated our economy and hurt us badly by causing our tourism to come to a complete standstill - we are now just seeing a trickle of tourists returning - clearly any attempt to cause LIAT to suffer a death will be anathema to Antigua and Barbuda.
“We would not want to watch LIAT die and not make a valiant effort to save it from the decisions which thus far would result in its liquidation. We are working on attempting to ensure that the assets of LIAT can be protected and the creditors of LIAT which include its employees can receive some level of protection, and that LIAT as a trade name can survive as it has these past 65 years in our region.”