Living with LIAT
Posted By Dave Martins On February 3, 2013. In So It Go |
In just a few months from now, the regional airline LIAT will begin using the expanded facilities at Ogle Airport ferrying passengers to and from the Caribbean. This development, a step up for the travelling public, leads me to recall the 1970s when Tradewinds were often on LIAT planes criss-crossing the region to play in virtually every island in the Eastern Caribbean from the BVI to Grenada. (We even played in Bequia, where LIAT didn’t go, but that’s another tale for another time.)
Airline travel today has its own aggravations, but moving inter-island in those early years made for some unusual encounters. LIAT’s operation control then was in Antigua with information going out to the other airports, and reservation problems could arise as a result.
Each regional airport operated with a “reservation list” that was the Holy Grail of travel. To be told by LIAT personnel at the airport, “You’re not on the list” meant your travel plans for that day were over. It was the imprimatur.
An example involves a travelling salesman from the US moving through the Caribbean. The story, as I came to learn it, started in Puerto Rico. He had overnighted there, travelling to St Kitts the next day, but at the LIAT check-in he was told, “Sir, you’re not on the list.” Furious, with his ticket showing “ok”, he had to spend an extra night in Puerto Rico. Two days later, he’s at the St Kitts airport headed for St Maarten, this time with a signed sticker on his ticket, but nothing doing: he’s hit with the same YNOTL – “you’re not on the list”. Fuming, but assured he’s on the list for tomorrow, the American spends another night in St Kitts. In St Maarten he takes care to check with LIAT at the airport (“Yes, you’re confirmed for tomorrow.”) but the next morning, heading for Antigua, he hears the YNOTL again and has to overnight in St Maarten. By now the American is in a rage. In Antigua he goes straight to the LIAT office in town and demands a signed “guaranteed seat” letter.
The next morning, armed with that, he goes to the airport to fly to St Lucia. On that day, with Tradewinds departing also for St Lucia, I’m standing behind the American checking in completely unaware, of course, of what he had gone through. American steps to the counter, says he’s travelling to St Lucia, and the young man behind the counter says, “Sorry, sir. You’re not on the list.” In one sweeping move, American releases a sound like air leaving a balloon, drops his carry-on bag, and slaps the LIAT employee, as we say in Guyana, wadap. All hell breaks loose. The LIAT employee runs to the area behind him and comes back brandishing a cutlass; the check-in line dissolves; American is back-pedalling, and I right behind him. After security staff arrives and calm is restored, the American’s story comes out. He apologizes profusely to the LIAT fellow, “I don’t know what came over me,” he said. “I only heard you’re not on the list, and I snapped.”
Inter-island travel in those days was truly a trip. With LIAT the only scheduled air connection between these small islands, passengers would come on board transporting the most unusual items. On one trip, a huckster came on board struggling with the usual oversize carry-on and wearing, on her head, a dozen straw hats, one inside the other; she had to stoop to get in the plane. LIAT personnel could only roll their eyes. Incidentally, before she got off at the next stop the lady had already sold two of the hats to mesmerized tourists.
On a trip between St Vincent and St Lucia, I sat beside a lady whose carry-on gear included a tin of fried fish (I could smell it) and a small quake with live crabs. I’m telling you – live crabs. I couldn’t smell the crabs, but I could see them wiggling through the spaces in the quake. The interesting thing about it is that in the travel conditions of that time these conditions were seen as perfectly acceptable, and, in a way, to know those islands was to know that LIAT was contributing to both inter-island economy and the very way of life in its service.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the oddities are still going on today; perhaps not the crabs, but certainly the hats and the fried fish.
To be fair to LIAT, they didn’t have it easy with some of their passengers (a huckster woman in full cry is a formidable force) and there were other difficulties. Tradewinds were going in to Dominica one day, and the aircraft, preparing to land, turned around and circled the runway a couple of times. The captain came on the intercom and assured us that all was well and we would soon be landing, but a flight attendant gave me the inside information with a little smile. “There were some goats grazing near the runway.” At Arnos Vale, in St Vincent, the main road at the south of the island actually intersected the runway, so that when planes were landing the road had to be closed. The mechanism is different now, but in the 1970s that closing was achieved by a man on either side of the runway, sliding a long bamboo pole through two uprights to stop traffic. (The tourists, I must relate, would often try to take pictures of it from the aircraft. “It’s so charming,” they would say. The LIAT crew would smile.)
In retrospect, although many of us seemed oblivious to it at the time, LIAT was a vital cog in Caribbean life. Our island economies, so heavily dependent on tourism, would have been in a shambles without it, and it’s fair to say that the airline has suffered from the lack of financial support from the very Caribbean nations it was serving. Today more support is at hand, LIAT is bringing in new planes, and the Ogle experience here will be another step forward for them and for our country. In summary, we’re moving up.
At the same time, though, I must admit that while the inconveniences are fewer, a lot of the charm has gone out of the inter-island travel experience. I have to admit that the lady with the 12 hats was a lovely moment – at St Maarten, two stops later, I was still smiling – and the furor in Antigua, after the initial shock, made for a great story. Also, I think the white folks had it right: there is something warming about an expensive aircraft being told by Air Traffic Control, “You are not cleared to land; bamboo barriers are not in place.”
One thing, however, I’m glad about is that LIAT now has a locator system when you check in that airport, so that “the list” is a thing of the past. Waiting on a flight, those five words had a deadly sound. I’ve seen them make grown women cry. It’s a relief to know we won’t be hearing them at Ogle.