PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, CMC – Two Caribbean leaders called for the creation of a single regional airline even as they said they were aware there is still a need for a regional air transportation agreement “which we need to put together”.
Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning and his St Vincent and the Grenadines counterpart, Dr Ralph Gonsalves made the call at the end of a two-day official visit by Gonsalves that highlighted the close relationship between the two southern Caribbean countries.
Manning told reporters that a Council of Trade and Economic Development (COTED) meeting in St Vincent last year had noted the fact “that there is no air services agreement among the Caribbean territories and they had discussed a policy position on this matter”.
But he said because of a lack of a quorum the meeting was not properly constituted as an organ of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and, therefore, it was regarded as being consultative.
“But it significantly advanced the cause of the establishment of a proper policy for regional air transport. What is being proposed now is that the COTED (CARICOM’s second highest decision-making body) under whose auspices this must be done, must re-convene shortly so that we can complete the identification of an appropriate policy position”.
Gonsalves, the second regional leader after his Barbados counterpart David Thompson to visit here in recent times, said that agreement had also been reached on greater collaboration on education and health.
Regarding the need for a single regional airline, Gonsalves told reporters that both he and Manning “were at one” even as he asked “how are we going to fashion that”.
He said it would depend on a regional air transportation agreement “and getting all the modalities in place”.
Gonsalves said that a strategic decision had already been made with the decision by three Caribbean countries – Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda and St Vincent and the Grenadines – to buy the assets of the former regional carrier Caribbean Star, in advancing the notion of a single regional carrier.
Gonsalves acknowledged that following the buyout, the regional airline LIAT was undergoing problems, including flight and managerial issues, but added “we are working at addressing these”.
He said it would be detrimental to the concept of a single regional airline, if the Trinidad-based Caribbean Airlines (CAL) was allowed to operate in competition with LIAT on the same routes.
“Just think of it, if Caribbean Airlines starts to run Dash 8 in the rest of the islands.you can see a controlled competition which is going to be started again,” he said, recalling that St Lucia had in the past complained about the service provided by LIAT and had entered into an agreement with the US-based American Eagle to service the Barbados-St Lucia route.
“There is not enough traffic for both LIAT and American Eagle, the fares went up on Eagle by nearly $200, and as high as the fares were for LIAT, it went up even more on Eagle and then finally Eagle has suspended operations,” Gonsalves said.
“No foreign carrier in this region owes us anything and they are strictly commercial operators, they will pull the rug from under your right away.
“Can you have a Caribbean Community unless you have in there proper communication and the principal form of communication is transportation? Now we can’t stop CAL from running Dash 8 services, because the institutional arrangements and regulatory arrangements for making up schedules and fares don’t exist.
“There are sound arrangements for safety but why should CAL and LIAT be involved in the battle in this sub-region. It makes sense for us to cooperate.
“You can’t stop competition in the skies, but competition which is mindless and which is going to be to the detriment of everybody makes absolutely no sense and where you do not have the regulatory and institutional frameworks to deal with competition, in the long run you will have a lack of sustainability for air transport and you and I will bawl,” he said.
Manning said that regarding the availability of CAL to be involved in the new venture, he was reminding the region that “it is a new company, it has no debt, it is properly capitalised, it is properly managed and it is available to provide all air transport services in the Caribbean”.
He recalled that CAL, which replaced the financially plagued BWIA, came into being following discussions with regional leaders including Barbados and St.
Vincent and the Grenadines a “couple years ago”.
“So we are now seeking to advance that cause and to put a proper air services agreement in place which is a pre-requisite to proper transport arrangements in the Caribbean,” he added.
Manning said that a number of Caribbean states were also experiencing proper transportation outside of the region, with airlift being provided by international airlines at a cost to the governments.
“Incidentally, Caribbean Airline is run on a totally commercial basis without any political decision making associated with the conduct of its economic affairs.
He said if his government wanted the airline to provide a service which it viewed as not being economical, “then the government of Trinidad and Tobago would have to pay CAL and similarly if any government in the region would like CAL to operate any route on its behalf it must provide, support it financially as we do with British Airways and any other international airline”.