What motivated airline and government officials in two key Caribbean trade bloc member states to cheaply dispose of the decades-old landing slots of two regional airlines at London’s Heathrow Airport in the past five years is the subject of a heated debate in the two countries, especially because serious corruption is suspected in both cases.
Back in 2007, when officials in the then-Patrick Manning administration in Trinidad had sought to sell off the slots at Heathrow for a measly $7.96 million, industry officials and those in the then-opposition United National Congress (UNC) railed against it, saying the nation’s “crown jewels” were being sold off too cheaply. The sale went ahead anyway.
Now the island’s Parliament will soon debate an official investigation into the sale by a commission of inquiry. Critics say it is bound to embarrass the opposition People’s National Movement (PNM), which back then was in government and had developed a habit of ignoring criticism, even from inside the bowels of its own party and government.
Cabinet Minister Ganga Singh said this week that the audit report that has been completed will prove what critics had been saying all along–that the slots were sold much too cheaply and could have been leased out rather than sold off completely, as they are almost impossible to buy back today.
“The report vindicates the position I took in 2007. The former PNM administration really sold the crown jewels of BWIA [Caribbean Airlines], its Heathrow slots, for a beggarly sum. That has always been our position, and today it subjects our traveling public in Trinidad and Tobago and other customers to a major inconvenience of having to go through the Gatwick hub, some two hours away from Heathrow,” Singh told the Trinidad Express newspaper.
He argued that officials back then had acted “recklessly and irrationally” in disposing of state property without proper parliamentary approval, as passengers now have to land at Gatwick and commute back to London for air connections and tourist activities.
In Jamaica, where an official probe is also under way, authorities are blaming delays by British officials in providing crucial information to local investigators for stalling the probe into the $10.2 million sale of Air Jamaica slots to Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, also back in 2007. Jamaican officials say the information is needed to determine whether charges will be brought by those involved in the sale, as it reeks of corruption.
While Trinidad’s Parliament is about to receive its report, Jamaican state prosecutors say they have formally asked British authorities for key evidence as they move to charge officials involved with the sale for suspected corruption.
“We indicated the sensitivity of it because it was an investigation that involved a then-sitting member of Parliament,” the Jamaica Gleaner quoted Deputy Prosecutor Caroline Hay as saying this week. “We got acknowledgement of the request and we followed up several times in writing, but we haven’t received a response,” she said.
The landing slots were sold at a time when both Air Jamaica and Caribbean Airlines were pulling out of the London market, even as both have returned or are returning today. Back then, critics and aviation experts had suggested leases rather than an outright sale, but no one apparently listened.