Charter flights from Tampa to Cuba could begin in September

Jul 27, 2011

The following article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on July 27, 2011:

Charter flights from Tampa to Cuba could begin in September

By Ted Jackovics

Flights between Tampa International Airport and Cuba could begin as early as Sept. 10, as the Cuban government has approved landing rights for at least one Miami-based charter company.

ABC Charters will start with a weekly flight utilizing American Airlines Boeing 737s with 145 seats and plans to expand service to Havana to twice-weekly in October, officials announced Wednesday.

Fares have not been set but they are likely to be equivalent to the $399 to $459 round- trip air fares between Miami and Havana, said Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters.

“We start with baby steps,” said Aral, whose company provides charter flights between Miami and Havana and Holguin in Cuba.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said permission by the Cuban government along with previous Obama Administration approval to serve Tampa was welcome news that could provide an economic lift to the area.

“Think about all the families in the Tampa Bay area who have had to travel down to Miami with that expense and inconvenience,” said Castor, who has formally pushed for travel between Tampa International and Cuba since 2008. “That is what spurred everybody into action.”

ABC Charters will hire one full-time and four-part-time employees at first in Tampa. In addition, local travel businesses and suppliers have said they would benefit from local flights serving Cuba.

Tampa airport officials were ecstatic Wednesday that Tampa-Havana service would be restored for the first time in 50 years.

“This is just the first inning,” Tampa International chief executive Joe Lopano said. “We will get more international flights,” he said, indicating the airport’s performance on Cuban service will serve to entice airline expansion to other destinations.

Additional charter operators are likely to operate flights between Tampa and Cuba, while the Cuban government is expected to permit additional U.S. airports to serve Cuban charters.

The director of Miami-based XAEL Charters Inc., Xiomara Almaguer-Levi, said her company on Tuesday received approval from Cuban travel operator Havanatour for Tampa-Cuba charter flights and is working with three airlines to arrange a contract for flights.

Tampa International spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan said the airport was unaware of the XAEL offer, but “All are welcome to work with us.”

Restrictions on who may travel from the United States to Cuba remain in effect, in general limiting travel to those with relatives in Cuba or those on academic, business or religious-related missions.

However, following months of anticipation after the Obama Administration relaxed some Cuba travel restrictions in January, the Tampa-Havana announcement Wednesday was eagerly acknowledged by many members of the local Cuban-American community.

“This closes the loop,” said Jose Valiente, a native of Cuba and local businessman who serves on the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce board. “It will mean a lot of cost savings for those who have had to travel to Miami for flights.”

Al Fox, founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, said, “I think it’s great that so many of the people that fought for Tampa to have this right now are on board.”

Fox, David A Straz Jr., Lopano and Tampa International vice president of marketing Chris Minner met in Washington in April with Jorge Alberto Bolanos, chief of mission of the Cuban Interest Section, to push Tampa’s quest for Cuban charter flights.

Castor also has met with the Cuban Interest Section, which provides services comparable to a consulate, regarding the Cuban charter flights along with lobbying Obama Administration officials for the Tampa service.

However, opposition to enhanced U.S.-Cuba relations and travel remains among some elected officials – primarily from south Florida – including Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.

Diaz-Balart introduced an amendment in June to an appropriations bill that could complicate or restrict Tampa’s Cuban travel opportunities, but Castor said she believed the amendment would not gain approval in the Senate.

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