Last year, Antigua’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne made a clarion call to regional colleagues to invest in the ever cash-strapped airline LIAT. The governments of Grenada and St. Kitts and Nevis both responded favourably, each committing to provide EC$1 million. In an interview with the STAR on March 13, 2019, Prime Minister Allen Chastanet said his government would not consider investing in LIAT unless there were significant changes in the airline’s operation. He referenced a Caribbean Development Bank study that suggested three options: restructure the entity; privatize; or shutdown. If Saint Lucia were to buy shares, Chastanet said, the shares would need to be in an entity free to make whatever commercial decisions must be made.
“I don’t mind being a shareholder, going to my annual shareholder meeting, and if in fact the management are not doing a good job then you fire management. I don’t believe governments themselves should be involved in the day-to-day operations of the airline. That’s certainly not what appears to be in practice right now and so certainly Saint Lucia would not be interested in taking shares in LIAT as currently constructed.” Chastanet added that LIAT’s board must comprise people “that understand how to run an airline business”.
On January 9, LIAT announced the appointment of a board of directors headed by former Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur, currently serving as a professor at the University of the West Indies. LIAT highlighted that the new board brings over 100 years of combined aviation experience. Said LIAT in a statement: “The new chairman has been tasked by the new board to undertake a special assignment to meet with regional prime ministers to discuss sustainability of the airline. This assignment will be supported by other directors and the management team of the airline.” Last December, the company announced that Dr. Jean Holder—who served as its director and chairman for 16 years —had retired.
On Monday Prime Minister Allen Chastanet strongly supported the appointment of Arthur— whom he considers “very capable”. But that didn’t mean a change of attitude on the part of Saint Lucia’s prime minister. At any rate, not until Arthur has made necessary changes. Chastanet seemed to be anticipating structural changes to LIAT.
“We have to be satisfied that the tough decisions that have to be made in LIAT are going to be made,” said Chastanet. “There are a lot of adjustments and structural changes that have to take place and I think that it’s a good signal in having former prime minister Arthur there, because he is a no nonsense person and he has very good commercial sense as well. If there’s any person that could potentially break this deadlock, I think he’s that person. Saint Lucia is very hopeful that something can come of this new decision.”
In a bid to recapitalize the airline, Prime Minister Gaston Browne secured a US $15.8 million loan from Venezuelan bank, Banco del ALBA last November. The Antigua government, which holds 34% shares in the airline, is also negotiating to purchase the majority of Barbados’ 49% share ownership.