CubaNews / May 2003
By Larry Luxner
Delta Air Lines and Georgia state officials are lobbying hard to have the U.S. government designate Atlanta as the fourth gateway city for direct flights to Cuba.
Such designations are given not to specific carriers, but to cities. For years, Miami International Airport (MIA) was the only airport authorized to offer chartered flights to Havana’s José Martí International. In 1999, the Clinton administration said it would add two gateways. Atlanta bid for the slot but lost out to Los Angeles (LAX) and New York (JFK).
That decision, says the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, ws based on “a study of demand, demographics and the availability of U.S. Customs and Im-migration and Naturalization Service personnel to process flights.”
Jorge Fernández, Delta’s director for Latin America and the Caribbean, told CubaNews that “Delta probably will not lobby on its own, but will support the city” of Atlanta in its bid to become the fourth gateway city. As such, it’ll likely face competition from Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans and Tampa — all of which have shown interest in boosting business ties with Cuba.
“Both from a Delta and a local perspective, we would welcome a gateway out of Atlanta,” said the Cuban-born Fernández. “However, we fully understand the process in which gateways are designated. Under Helms-Burton, gateway designations are unfortunately basec on origin and destination traffic.”
Fernández added: “Besides being our gateway, Atlanta is also a huge hub, with more than 800 flights a day to 160 destinations. But from a U.S. government perspective, they’re looking for passengers originating in Atlanta, not [in-transit] passengers.”
At the moment, said the Delta executive, Cuban-Americans make up more than 90% of the business between Miami and Havana, and around 60% of the business between JFK and Havana. No figures were readily available for LAX-Havana traffic.
Regardless of the originating city, U.S. airlines can’t directly provide flights to Havana, because the United States and Cuba don’t have bilateral landing agreements. On the other hand, charter companies operating under Treasury Department licenses fly regularly. Some use 19-seat Beechcrafts, while others use Boeing jets owned by major airlines.
On Dec. 1, 2002, Delta began providing jets for Marazul Charters Inc., a Miami-based charter company that offers once-a-week flights between New York and Havana. And in June, 150 prominent Georgia business executives and local officials will board a Delta jet in Atlanta that will fly them to Cuba for one week of talks with their Cuban counterparts.
Over time, such business connections could generate enough traffic to justify making Atlanta a gateway city to Havana. Last September, Georgia sent the fourth-largest delegation of any state to the U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition in Havana. The group came home with $7 million in contracts for 18 Georgia lumber, poultry and other agricultural companies.
In recent months, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, those trade ties have picked up momentum with the city’s bid to serve as headquarters of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, scheduled to take effect in 2005.
If and when Delta gets a green light from the government, said Fernández, the airline would most likely use Marazul to operate its Atlanta-Havana flights.
“We would not be able to market the flight. It would have to be under a charter operation,” he said. “No big U.S. carriers operate in their own right. With the limitations placed on travel, it’s a lot more convenient to have somebody whose core business is Cuba.”
Bob Guild, program director at Marazul, told the Journal-Constitution that “all the airlines are trying to get in position to send regular flights to Cuba one day. Anyone who is in the market now is thinking about the future.”
Guild estimated that expenditures relating to Cuba travel netted $20 million for MIA last year. Whether Atlanta can also cash in on direct flights to Cuba remains to be seen.
“I think that will depend on what type of leverage some interest groups have in Congress, such as agribusiness,” said Delta’s Fernández. “That’s one area, since it’s allowed under Helms-Burton, where Atlanta — and certainly the state of Georgia — might be able to exploit.”