By Adrian Loveridge
Writing about LIAT, at this time, seems almost like a lesson in futility, especially when you consider it’s now some 45 years since the formation of LIAT (1974) Ltd, by the present owners and 63 years since the initial formation of the airline.
My first involvement with the airline dates back to the days of Court Line and flying some of my first groups as a tour operator on their pastel pink, yellow and violet Lockheed 1011 Tri-Stars out of Luton airport.
Court Line Aviation acquired LIAT in 1972 as part of its long haul strategy, supplying them with BAC 111 series 500 jets, ironically the only non-turbo propeller aircraft the Caribbean airline was ever to operate.
Court Line ceased trading on 15th August 1974, with the parent company together with its subsidiaries, Clarkson’s Travel Group and Horizon Travel, owing over GB pounds, seven million, to more than 100,000 holidaymakers.
LIAT (Leeward Airlines Air Transport) escaped the bankruptcy, but the BAC 111’s were reclaimed and 11 Caribbean territories stepped-in to save the carrier, replacing the jets initially with de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters. Later, Dash 8-100’s with increased passenger capacity were introduced.
Of course, this is only history and here we are nearly five decades later trying to figure out, if or how, a reliable sustainable regional carrier can survive and flourish, without vast amounts of taxpayer’s monies propping it up, or endlessly queuing at an ATM cash-flow lifesaver.
Let us for a moment look at it from a slightly different perspective.
According to Statista, described by Wikipedia, as one of the most successful statistic databases in the world, hotel occupancy across the Caribbean averaged just 63.7 percent in 2018, the lowest level for the last seven years.
There are naturally mitigating circumstances, like the devastating knock-on effects of a series of hurricanes and tropical storms, putting a vast supply of rooms out of use.
But conversely, it appears that those visitors destined for damaged resorts and destinations, were seemingly not converted in large numbers, to other non-affected territories within the Caribbean.
Frank Comito, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association recently quoted there are ’80,000 vacant hotel rooms every night’ across the region and ‘filling just ten percent of those rooms would inject nearly US$2 billion into the Caribbean economy’.
Another area maybe that we have not yet fully appraised, is the impact of a increasing secondary lodging sector, which includes Airbnb and Where-to-Stay type alternatives to traditional hotel accommodation.
Our government has yet to report on how successful the registration, and licensing of these properties has been, together with exactly how much has been raised through the newly imposed ‘shared accommodation levy’, which could now finally help support the marketing of Barbados.
To a certain extent our climatic conditions largely determine demand in most of our major markets, producing two distinct seasons.
If we wish to fill more of those empty rooms outside a few summer festivals, then a strong, affordable and reliable regional air carrier is not an option, it is a necessity.
Let us hope the recent announcement by the prime minister and proposed reduction of Barbados taxpayer’s shareholding in LIAT, leads to a commercially viable restructuring of the airline, but many will remain highly skeptical, especially when you consider where the majority of passengers join or transit.