Trinidad and Tobago PM Keith Rowley Thursday said that it would not be involved in any regional air transport arrangement that would result in a financial burden on the island, even as it acknowledged that the state-owned Caribbean Airlines (CAL) would continue to play a role in regional air transportation.
Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley, speaking at the weekly Cabinet news conference, told reporters that while the issue of air and sea transportation had been discussed extensively at the just concluded Caribbean Community (CARICOM) summit in Suriname, Port of Spain would not be part of any initiative that would require it putting out significant sums of money as it did in the past.
“You know in Trinidad and Tobago that’s a tricky one for us. There are a number of airlines in the region, but we have the ones…going back to BWIA days and then CAL as we have now, I should tell you our position in all of these matters with air service is that Trinidad and Tobago is not interested as a government to get involved in owning regional transport of the type that we had in Bee Wee where we had significant responsibility but carried it as a Trinidad and Tobago financial burden.”
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He said the government is committed to keeping CAL “alive and well” and that the government is already in hoc debt-wise supporting CAL to the tune of over US$250 million…and of course, CAL’s existence in the marketplace as an airline and flying routes are under the instructions of the government of Trinidad and Tobago to only fly routes that are commercially viable”.
He said if additional routes are available “outside of CAL’s own decision, the territories that want those routes will have to contribute towards their sustenance”.
Rowley said Trinidad and Tobago has been involved in an initiative with two foreign airlines, “literally pay them for seats not taken so as to preserve the route into the territory.
“Now, if the routes become attractive and it is filled out then there is no cost, but to get the routes started and supported for some significant time until it becomes viable …then the standard practice is that the country that is asking for that literally has to put up a letter of credit upfront and if the seats are not taken then that letter of credit pays for the empty seats.”
He said that these are some discussions that are to take place among the territories “but CAL would be there but not taking a burden in the way that we have been accustomed to because even in the way they are operating now on the limited schedule that we are using on the more profitable routes CAL is still relying on the Minister of Finance of Trinidad and Tobago for significant support”.
He said the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic “did not help that.
“We have supported CAL considerably to be able to have an airline operating, maintaining all the benefits …by putting the resources of the people of Trinidad and Tobago virtually alone.
“But the region is looking for help and maybe some kind of arrangement …hub and spoke arrangement cane be brought into bear but we leave that for those who are involved in it, but the policy as to what role we will play is pretty clear,” Rowley told reporters.
On Tuesday night, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. ralph Gonsalves, speaking at the end of the summit news conference, said CARICOM leaders had agreed on a new modern Multilateral Air Services Agreement (MASA) that will allow for a new framework within which air transportation will operate in the region.
He said that countries, particularly those in the Eastern Caribbean, and even Trinidad and Tobago were being severely affected by the loss of thousands of seats “because LIAT as it was is no longer before us..
“You did not realise it while COVID-19 (coronavirus) was on but after COVID has receded somewhat and people are travelling again we see the problems. So a discussion has taken place between the prime ministers of Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados and Guyana and I happen to know Prime Minister (Roosevelt) Skerrit of Dominica will be involved in this”.
Gonsalves said that given St. Kitts-Nevis is in “an election cycle” and was not represented at the summit that ended on Tuesday, “we have taken a decision between those countries …that we are going to address the issue of a regional air carrier of some kind, may well be the revival of LIAT in some form or the other, but we have to get a consultant in the area of aviation to put the framework together and some numbers as a matter of urgency for us to move on”.
He said while that is taking place, he has been given the responsibility to “coordinate certain things to get that going and then we get the terms of reference in order for such an exercise and to have a further conversation at the leadership level”.
Gonsalves said that such a meeting could possibly take place in either St. Vincent and the Grenadines or St. Lucia sometime in the period between the 28 and the end of July…to advance this question in a very practical manner.
During the news conference on Thursday, Prime Minister Rowley also awoke of the developments regarding sea transportation, noting that prior to the summit in Suriname, regional leaders at a meeting in Guyana had directed him to work with the Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) “towards determining the feasibility of re-introduction of marine transportation because we have to have significant marine transportation”.
He said the discussions are taking place along the models of the Federal boats that were launched in 1961 as gifts from Canada to the West Indies Federation.
“It was the best times for those of us who moved around affordably in the region and if we are going to produce a significant amount of raw material in the areas of Suriname, Guyana and Brazil then to move them into Trinidad and Tobago and to the other islands where they will be utilized…we would need proper transport.”
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