Friday, 25 February 2011 06:55
By Vernon Khelawan
The usually tranquil skies which typify the aviation industry in the Eastern Caribbean is beginning to heat up over issues relating to new airlines awaiting permission to operate in the region;
Caribbean Airlines’ planned expansion into destinations in the southern Caribbean; and the perennial fights between LIAT and its pilots.
The disquieting situation first appeared above the Caribbean horizon late last year when Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines and the PM responsible for aviation matters in Caricom, began making noises when CAL announced its intention to begin operating flights into St Vincent, St Lucia, Grenada and Barbados.
Gonsalves’s contention is that such direct competition with struggling LIAT, of which St Vincent is part owner, would further hurt the airline’s chances of survival.
Conversely, St Lucia’s Tourism Minister, Allan Chastanet welcomed the CAL initiative of increased airlift into Castries saying that St Lucia and its neighbours should benefit greatly from such services. He added that while St Lucia over the last three years had benefitted greatly after investing significant marketing resources in all of its major markets, the intra Caribbean market had not kept pace with the record growth experienced in those larger markets.
Chastanet said, “We are committed to welcoming as many new airlines to the destination as possible because where we have increased seat capacity, we have seen competitive airfares, strong demand and growth.” It is expected that talks between CAL and St Lucia would resume shortly.
But Chastanet complained of an even bigger problem, this time with the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority (ECCAA). He claims that permission for the St Lucia-based airline –Caricom Airways was not forthcoming and has threatened to call for a probe into the operations of the Authority. He said he was convinced that everything was being done to ensure the new carrier doesn’t take to the skies in direct competition with other regional carriers.
The matter exploded last December when the ECCAA grounded the airline on the basis it was operating illegally within the Caribbean, following complaints by Vincentian authorities. The airline carries an air operating licence from Suriname. Caricom Airways has been designated a flag carrier of St Lucia under the Community of Interest Ruling and further, the ECCAA and other countries in the region have been notified of the designation.
“We are proceeding with efforts to get Caricom Airways flying, so I expect they (ECCAA) will be making an announcement shortly about allowing the airline to commence service between St Lucia and Dominica and given the new carrier’s flag status, it may apply to several other destinations to operate there. The airline will be starting off with Dominica and applications will go in for travel to St Vincent, Grenada and Martinique, Chastanet added.
The St Lucian Tourism Minister also disclosed that in addition to Caribbean Airlines and Caricom Airways, his government was in negotiations with American Eagle to begin service between Barbados and St Lucia. However, it must be noted that American Eagle has recently cut back some of its Caribbean services out of its San Juan, Puerto Rico base.
Meanwhile there are at least two other airlines awaiting permission to operate services inside and outside of the Caribbean. REDjet remains on the ground while waiting for permission from the Barbadian aviation authorities and a Miami-based outfit is working feverishly to complete its paperwork towards being granted authority for the introduction of services between Florida and several Caribbean destinations.
The continued simmering relations between LIAT and its pilots flared up again last week with both sides trading and denying accusations regarding implementation of the rulings of the arbitration panel, now about a year old.
First salvo was inadvertently thrown by LIAT’s Chief Executive Officer Brian Challenger during a radio interview in Antigua when he said the airline was moving towards full implementation of all rulings by the arbitration panel.
The pilots, through their union the Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association (LIALPA)took issue with this and immediately dispatched a press release claiming that statement was “far from the truth” and went on to list what it called the “unvarnished facts”.
• LIAT has not been fully complying with all the arbitration rulings. Instead it has gone about the entire process with a “piecemeal” approach and is selectively and unilaterally deciding which rulings to implement;
• The company continues to be in breach of our collective agreement and the Tribunal award by posting a revised seniority list that contains pilots who have been appointed to permanent administrative positions in flagrant violation of the tribunal ruling;
• The company has been reluctant to schedule meal breaks for pilots as specified in the arbitration ruling; and
• Several of LIALPA’s executive members continue to be victims of what appears to be a recent policy of harassment and threats via the instrument of disciplinary mechanism.
In its reply LIAT said it stood by its position it was moving towards full implementation of the Arbitration Award. But it also claimed that one ruling called for amendments to the Collective Agreement. Drafts were sent to LIALPA for review and after five meetings the union had neither submitted its draft nor signed the company’s amendments, but rather its lawyer has now requested another meeting to discuss particular areas of concern.
The company also categorically denied all allegations of harassment and threats against LIALPA executive members.
The union hit back saying, “Mr Challenger knows very well there are several unresolved matters left for his management team to address and that these issues have been met with what could be termed “Intentional roadblocks” or “deliberate delaying tactics”.
LIAT stated, as instructed by its shareholders and its Board of Directors, the company “remains committed to the earliest and full implementation of the award.”