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A BWIA dry run

By Terry Joseph
April 14, 2006

Here in Germany, where the Mercedes-Benz sedan is the preference of lowly taxi-drivers, it is safe to assume none among them would respond kindly to the experience of several Trini motorists who, earlier this week discovered premium gasoline purchased at a Barataria service station comprised a mixture of fuel and water; causing engine-failure shortly after leaving the pump.

Based on a report in Wednesday's Express, (April 12), affected motorists apparently took the situation lightly, allowing the gas station manager's choice of motor mechanics to take apart their petrol tank connections and drain contaminated fuel, presumably rewarding them with full tanks of properly prepared premium.

We may further surmise none of the drivers were on the way to catch a BWIA flight, or the problem would have been infinitely more acute, given time-constraints and sheer inconvenience of having critical systems dismantled en route but certainly, this should not be the end of that story; given its origin at a State-operated facility.

Happily, I had no such difficulty last week on the way to the airport to board BWIA flight 900 to London, although another kind of fuel and water problem, one significantly more embarrassing to both the aircraft's crew and passengers, occurred early Thursday morning, high over the Atlantic Ocean.

In that experience, BWIA brought new definition to the term "dry run'' and ironically, among First Class passengers who discovered the plane had run out of potable water was the airline's former chairman Lawrence Duprey. Like the rest of us, he discreetly suffered through the ignominy, having regard to the delicate circumstances in which one makes such discoveries.

It was not incompetence but rather adherence to a recently implemented policy that foisted the problem upon us. Having calculated fuel costs incurred by carrying excessive quantities of water, the airline's senior management decreed there should be a significant reduction in the quantity airlifted on long-haul flights; all in the continuing effort to reduce expenses.

More so than most, Mr Duprey should well understand austerity measures for, it was under his stewardship we found out BWIA teetered with net liabilities of some $208 million as at year-end 2003, barely escaping bankruptcy. The auditors report warned that the airline "cannot continue as a going concern without improved profitability, continued support of its financiers or further capital injection by its shareholders.''

The latter consideration proved to be, well, pie in the sky, as shares sold at $7.80 in 2000 had already plummeted to 68 cents. Eventually, Government purchased 97 per cent of $256 million worth originally offered as a rights issue, no doubt charmed by a plan to return the airline to profitability, mere months after Trade and Industry Minister Kenneth Valley said BWIA had performed well enough in the previous year to avoid any further State-sponsored financial assistance at that time.

By February last year, Mr Valley was singing a different calypso, the chorus of which said Government had to make some hard decisions concerning BWIA. Earlier this month, we learnt from new CEO Peter Davies that "poor operational management'' was causing the airline to lose US$1 million per week. Mr Davies cited lack of accountability as a major issue affecting the embattled airline, promising reversal of that position under his leadership. Among the airline's new rules was axing of its Trinidad/Manchester route and revision of water rations.

Interestingly, last week BWIA announced an agreement with Hi-Lo Food Stores, enabling the latter's customers to redeem points earned on their Smart Shopper cards at the airline's ticketing facility. It is useful to note that Hi-Lo, which does a brisk trade in bottled water, said the new partnership will add value on both sides, giving shoppers the opportunity to enjoy free travel sooner. Perhaps part of the frequent flyer deal may soon include taking water onboard for personal use.

Such a move can actually result in great savings on both sides. The 737 Airbus is a long-range aircraft with extraordinary capacity that belies its outward and visible size. It can fly from Port of Spain to Moscow without refuelling and if spared the extra weight of potable water for a full passenger-load can further extend fuel efficiency.

It is against this backdrop and in complete sympathy with the national airline's financial plight that I would like to suggest BWIA, having tested the idea, now develop with the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) an alliance similar to the Hi-Lo partnership, allowing itself twice the benefit should water tanks supplying its washrooms ever run dry again on a Trans-Atlantic haul.

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