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Raffique Shah


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Against public opinion

By Raffique Shah
March 09, 2008

When the furore over government owning an executive jet first erupted last year, I was among the very few persons who saw nothing wrong with it, and I wrote as much. I argued then that the Prime Minister could be likened to the CEO of an oil rich country, except that his responsibilities were far greater, and that right here in Trinidad and Tobago there were several conglomerates that owned such aircraft. Indeed, across the world, most governments own, or have assigned to them, aircraft ranging from small executive jets to huge jumbo-jets.

I still hold that position. But like most people, I did not cater for the 'gobar' coming from Prime Minister Patrick Manning, his Cabinet colleagues and board members and executives of Caribbean Airlines (CA) last week. From the moment the proposed purchase was confirmed, I wondered if CA's chairman Arthur Lok Jack, normally an astute businessman, had gone mad. Or if Colm Imbert, who has emerged as government's chief spokesperson, had again stuck his head so deep in darkness, he could not distinguish polyps from tulips.

Here's the crap these men want to sell us. CA insists there's a huge, untapped market out there for executive jets as large as, and with the range of a US Air Force B-52 bomber. The truth is there are numerous companies in North America and Europe that offer such services. NetJets, the most prominent, boasts not only the biggest fleet in the world, but that it can pick up and fly "the discerning customer" anywhere in the world. Its services are used by movie stars, high-flying sportsmen-and yes, prime ministers.

Now, CA is catching hell to stay in the skies, having morphed from a debt-ridden BWIA to state-subsidised airline that cut its trans-Atlantic routes and is currently confined to the Caribbean and North America.

Because of the many cutbacks it has implemented, including scrimping on cabin services and on staff, CA may just break even, or make a small profit in its first year of operations. In such circumstances, I imagine Lok Jack and company will be more than happy to get a gift-plane costing taxpayers over $300 million, with a guaranteed number of flying hours (double-payment by taxpayers).

But both Manning and Lok Jack know that to have such a luxurious aircraft is dependent on other customers chartering it. Do they seriously believe our poor Caribbean neighbours can afford this super-luxury? These fellas can't even keep LIAT in the skies. So where are the customers coming from? Among our local cultural and sporting stars, not even Brian Lara would blow his hard earned money on that. And if Lok Jack and a few friends want to blow his millions flying around the Caribbean or wherever, he'd opt instead for Guardian Holdings' executive jet. Incidentally, I think Lok Jack is chairman of Guardian.

So let's cut the crap, fellas. Admit that you have all fainted from your foul emissions. You don't need an executive jet that can fly 50 freeloaders from here to Timbuktu. A 12-seater Lear or Gulfstream, costing a fraction of the one Bombardier is palming off on us, will be just right, as 'Sprang' would say. Without doing a feasibility study, I can say that 75 per cent of the travel that government officials undertake lies between Brazil and Canada. Any of these smaller but comfortable aircraft can zip you there in a flash. You need to go to Moscow to talk gas with Putin's successor? Hire a NetJets plane, and you'd be there on time, at much less cost than this Bombardier monstrosity. Africa? No Problem- NetJets. And no, I am not an agent for that company.

Another very pertinent point: almost every country in which the government owns aircraft, they are flown and overseen by members of their Defence Force. It's the point I made when I heard that the PM had contracted his private security to some company. Sure, in the case of the executive jet, it would need to stay at Piarco. But so will TTDF personnel assigned to guard, service and staff the plane. Only in Belarus does the national airline manage the government's private aircraft. And, Mr. Lok Jack, only Lufthansa among big airline companies operates an executive jet service.

Just to give readers a peep into the stratosphere of executive-flyers, the Sultan of Brunei (who was at Sandhurst in my time, one year behind me) owns two Boeing jumbos, two Airbus passenger jets, and four Gulfstream executive jets. Agentina, big as it is, owns a paltry Boeing 757 and two Fokkers. And lest you think Patos gone mad, check this: the late, notorious Mobotu Sese Seko of Zaire was the only head of state to charter a supersonic Concorde!

So let the government have its executive jet. But be modest about what we buy. And transparent. Ostentation is not something to be tolerated in a society still riddled with poverty.

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