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The Big Skim – How the Caribbean has Perfected Harassing Travelers into a Fine Art

Let’s cut to the chase and talk about the elephant in the room…

Flying on commercial airlines sucks.

As an air passenger you are often subjected to a whole range of bullshit and humiliations and the kicker is you paid for the privilege.

I don’t mind paying for a service, however I do object to having to pay to be harassed.

This is exactly what happens when you travel by air in the Caribbean.

The Caribbean Airline

The Southern Caribbean islands are notorious for generating bad air travel experiences – The main inter island airline is Leeward Islands Air Transport, or LIAT.

Not only is LIAT a government run airline which can be a recipe for either frustration, economic disaster or both. LIAT is jointly-owned by a conglomerate of Caribbean governments, the major shareholders include:

  • Antigua & Barbuda
  • Barbados
  • Dominica
  • Vincent

If you have flown in the islands you have probably heard the jokes about what LIAT really stands for:

Luggage In Another Terminal

or

Leave Island Any Time

or even

Languishing In Airport Terminals

You may have even read the infamous letter to LIAT written by Arthur Hicks in 2013, which Sir Richard Branson helped go viral.

Dear LIAT,

May I say how considerate it is of you to enable your passengers such an in-depth and thorough tour of the Caribbean.

Most other airlines I have travelled on would simply wish to take me from point A to B in rather a hurry. 

I was intrigued that we were allowed to stop at not a lowly one or two but a magnificent six airports yesterday. 

And who wants to fly on the same airplane the entire time? We got to change and refuel every step of the way!

I particularly enjoyed sampling the security scanners at each and every airport. I find it preposterous that people imagine them all to be the same.

And as for being patted down by a variety of islanders, well, I feel as if I’ve been hugged by most of the Caribbean already.

I also found it unique that this was all done on ‘island time’, because I do like to have time to absorb the atmosphere of the various departure lounges. 

As for our arrival, well, who wants to have to take a ferry at the end of all that flying anyway? 

I’m glad the boat was long gone by the time we arrived into Tortola last night — and that all those noisy bars and restaurants were closed.

So thank you, LIAT. I now truly understand why you are ‘The Caribbean Airline’.

P.S. Keep the bag. I never liked it anyway.

When I first started flying between the Caribbean Islands in 2014, LIAT definitely deserved to take the brunt of the jokes – operational reliability was horrible! We had experiences similar to those of Mr Hicks, and experienced our own tours of the islands before arriving many hours later at our final destination.

LIAT recently replaced its “flying bucket of bolts” fleet of Bombardier Dash 8’s with new ATR aircraft. Thankfully since the fleet upgrade was made we have always got to where we needed to be, almost on schedule most of the time. Knock on wood our luggage always arrived where and when we did.

These days the actual flying part of the LIAT experience is actually very good. At least the staff are friendly and they have stopped barking orders at their customers.

Going Through Money Faster Than Shit Through a Goose

But you know the thing that LIAT is really, really good at?

Losing Money.

Dr Gonsolves, the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines responded to Arthur Hicks open letter to LIAT. In his response,  The Prime Minister pointed out – not all of the issues called out by Mr. Hicks where the fault of LIAT. In my snarky opinion he is absolutely correct.

The same can be said when it comes to LIAT being a money loosing machine. It is not all the fault of LIAT. It also has to do with business environment it is operating in.

The problem here is too many hands in the cookie jar. It appears that almost every Caribbean airport and the civil aviation authority are extracting their pound of flesh (or two) from the travelling public and LIAT.

Mr. Hicks actually referred to this problem when he wrote:

“I particularly enjoyed sampling the security scanners at each and every airport. I find it preposterous that people imagine them all to be the same.”

The Big Skim

You see the big skim is this. Every time you get marched off the plane and through a security scanner – the airport that is doing the probing collects a fee.

Our recent experience exemplifies this perfectly.

We needed to get from St Kitts to St Vincent. You have heard the saying ‘there are no straight lines in the universe’ this is especially true when it comes to travelling in the Islands.

To get from St Kitts one needs to fly first to Antigua, then to Barbados and onwards to St Vincent.

This is completely understandable from a logistics perspective. LIAT has 10 planes which transport relatively few people between 17 islands in total, so multiple stops are to be expected.

The first two legs of our flight from St Kitts to Barbados via Antigua had the same flight number LIAT 421 and the same seat assignments. And not surprisingly the same aircraft.

However instead of touching down after our 20 minute flight from St Kits to Antigua and waiting while they picked up/dropped off some passengers. We were all unceremoniously marched off the plane through passport control and security. While listening to boarding calls for our flight we had to stand in not one but two lines. Then thanks to the overly enthusiastic Antiguan security guard who pulled my bag to pieces, we had to hurry back onto the very same plane. I was just through security an hour ago, and I just came off de plane! What possible mischief could I have gotten myself into?

As a bonus we got brand new boarding passes. Whoopee I guess the ones they gave us in St Kitts were not good enough.

We are doing this for your own good!

Frustrated at the delay I explained to the officer that I had gone through security in St Kitts before boarding the plane which had just landed in Antigua. (Note to self if you challenge authority in these parts they go out of their way to make things uncomfortable for you.)

I was told by the rather pleasant security agent that they were hassling me for my own safety – To quote the President of the United States of America “Bullshit” – If they were actually concerned about my safety and security they would leave me on the plane, rather than marching me across the open tarmac, running the risk of me falling down the rickety ramp from the plane (or being crushed by a wobbly 300 pounder on the way back up those flimsy stairs).

Antiguan security also made me chug the extortionately expensive water bought in the St Kitts airport – or pour it out!

Twenty 20 minutes after landing in Antigua and having been thoroughly harassed we were in the air again.

An hour and 15 minutes later we landed in Barbados for our 3rd security check in 3 hours. Again my bag was dismantled – I was frisked and scanned – without having set off any alarms.

Here’s the deal with Barbados security on this fine sunny afternoon.

The security staff were in the process of being audited by 4 men with clip boards. The security people were putting on a show for the bosses and I was playing a lead role in this farcical production. By this time I was getting rather pissed off!

It is painfully obvious that none of the Island security operations trusts the competency of their comrades on neighbouring Islands!

Razor Thin Margins

Our tickets to fly from St Kitts to St Vincent (300 miles as the Carib Grackle fly’s) cost us a total of $248.15 dollars per person.

You know how much LIAT got out of the deal? $157 dollars. US $157 measly dollars to finance, operate and maintain their aircraft, pay for marketing and overhead, pay for staff and fly their pilots to Toronto every six months for flight simulator training.

The remainder $91.15 or 37% was fees and taxes

The airport authority in Antigua got their cut – the Barbados Airport authority got their cut.

There is no difference between what happened today and my experience of riding on an Indonesian bus through Sumatra years ago. This bus was stopped by police multiple times and each time the conductor had to pay off the cops before being allowed to proceed. Who do you think pays for the bribe – the paying customers of course.

In the Caribbean it is just a little more cutesy and at least you get felt up as part of the deal.

Hey! Look over there! (while I rob you)

It would appear that some of the island nations that own LIAT are partly responsible for screwing the airline into the ground. Then they cry de blues.

The President of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, recently stated that the government will be scaling back from it’s 49.4% ownership citing LIATs “flawed business model”.

I can’t comment on the business model; however I can say that I pay almost as much in fees and taxes than actual airfare when I purchase a LIAT ticket.

This bloat just might have something to with LIAT having to cut wages by 6%. I might also add that wage cuts are often viewed as the kiss of death for an airline.

A Bloated Cumbersome Bureaucracy

A former 747 pilot who has lived and worked in the Caribbean as a pilot gave me the impression that customer experience is just the tip of the Iceberg.

The bureaucracy that underlies civil aviation in the Caribbean would appear to be bloated, inefficient and very possibly an impediment to any competition in the sector.

Socialism (or cronyism) manifested in the form of a bloated bureaucracy is doomed to failure, especially when it is not underwritten by sound fundamental economics. Somebody has to pay the bills – Just ask the CEO of LIAT.

I have no idea how one would fix this problem, especially when you are dealing with multiple cash strapped governments.

The system currently in place appears to be very short sighted. Sure seems like grab the quick buck now, rather than give the Island economies a chance to flourish while giving the airlines ample operating margins.

As a traveller who partially pays for this mess, my message to the governments of the Islands is this – “Quit harassing those who are paying the bills, if you piss them off enough they will go elsewhere”.

Sure, you can continue to take your bogus landing fees if you are that desperate, just lay off subjecting travellers to bullshit security screens as a justification for padding the bill.

About the author: The Snarky Traveler is Michael’s alter ego. Snarky is the traveller in all of us who says from time to time “This is complete and utter bullshit” He is culturally aware but definitely not politically correct. He calls things the way he sees it and is not afraid to use colourful language to get his points across.

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