(ANTIGUA OBSERVER) — The Cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda has indicated that the British entrepreneurial magnate, Sir Richard Branson – of Virgin Atlantic fame – has shown interest in investing in the financially challenged regional airline, LIAT.
This was according the Chief of Staff within the Office of the Prime Minister, Lionel Hurst, who made the revelation yesterday at the weekly post-Cabinet press briefing.
According to Hurst, discussions held with the British capitalist involved growing the struggling air- line out of its situation, with the hope that it would become a profit-making enterprise.
According to the Cabinet notes, LIAT would have to enlarge its fleet and add other aircraft types. Hurst said, “The entrepreneur has proposed investing several million dollars. He would wet lease several aircraft, jets, and they would fly from Fort Lauderdale to Jamaica, Haiti and down into Antigua and Barbados.
“The whole idea is to enlarge LIAT, rather than collapse LIAT or making it a smaller entity.” This investment, Hurst said, would allow the air carrier to fly to destinations out- side of the region.
“He [Sir Richard Branson] is not going to plow his resources into a smaller LIAT that would not be able to achieve a profitable status. There just is not [enough] passengers and other kinds of possibilities to make LIAT profitable within the Caribbean,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government of Antigua and Barbuda is continuing its discussions with Barbados to purchase that country’s shares in the regional carrier. Hurst said Barbados has indicated that its shares in LIAT have been a burden on the country, which is currently going through an International Monetary Fund (IMF) restructuring program.
“We have also made a bid to purchase all the shares from Barbados because the Prime Minister of Barbados [Mia Mottley] has indicated they are burdened,” he said, adding that the value of Barbados’ shares in LIAT has not yet been determined.
This development followed the meeting of LIAT’s shareholder governments in Antigua on Tuesday, where it was agreed that a proposal by Prime Minister Gaston Browne regarding the future direction of the airline would be examined.
As the Barbadian Prime Minister was not present at the meeting, the Barbadian representative said upon his return he would raise with Prime Minister Mottley the issue of Antigua and Barbuda’s intent to purchase all of Barbados’ shares. A response is expected shortly.
During the meeting, Browne presented the proposal which is expected to be put into writing within a week. That proposal, according to reports, involves – among other things – a way to finance the keeping of the three planes owned by the Caribbean Development Bank.
There was a suggestion that the planes be sold as part of the downsizing of LIAT and there is consensus among some shareholders that this is a matter which merits very serious consideration. However, Hurst reiterated that the government would not allow any downsizing of LIAT to take place.