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Tampa, San Juan apply for direct charter flights to Cuba
CubaNews / May 2009

By Larry Luxner

Tampa, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico — both home to thousands of Cuban exiles — hope to become the next gateway cities for charter flights to Cuba.

And both have the backing of their respective representatives in Congress.

Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 11th District, asked the U.S. Commerce and Treasury departments to add Tampa International Airport to the current list of authorized ports of entry/exit for U.S.-Cuba charter flights.

At present, only Miami, New York and Los Angeles can offer such charter flights.

In an Apr. 14 letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Castor said that with President Obama’s recent decision to lift all family travel restrictions, the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba will likely triple from the current 10,000 a month to nearly 30,000 a month.

“This dramatic increase for travel to Cuba will create a need for a substantial increase in the number of direct charter flights,” the congresswoman wrote. “Currently, several charter companies operate flights from Miami to Cuba, but none from the Tampa Bay area, which has one of the largest concentrations of Cuban-Americans in the United States.”

Castor, citing census data, said the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area is home to nearly 67,000 Cuban-Americans — some of them in the historic Ybor City district, a flourishing center of Cuban culture long before Miami. Along with Orlando, Kissimmee, Lakeland, Jacksonville, Sarasota and Braden-ton, some 110,000 Cuban-Americans “would have easy access” to Tampa International.

My office deals with the personal family struggles that past limited travel opportunities brought on a regular basis,” she said. “In their quest to travel to Cuba to say good-bye or comfort a loved one, they were subjected to the worst kind of bureaucratic red tape because of those restrictions. I am convinced that the addition of TIA as a departure point for charter flights to Cuba will be one less burden these families will have to face.”

Castor said her petition has the full support of TIA’s director, Louis E. Miller, and that implementation of charter service would be fully coordinated with officials of both the Transportation Security Administration and Customs & Border Protection officials “to ensure that flights are scheduled during standard airport operating hours, avoiding additional costs that might result from officials having to work overtime.”

Maria Teresa Aral, vice-president of ABC Charters in Miami, said she’s not sure flights from Tampa to Cuba really make sense.

“It’s wonderful they want to open Tampa and other cities [to Cuba flights], but all you’re doing is diluting our Miami traffic. The differences in price will end up coming to the same thing,” she told CubaNews. “Right now, everybody is forced to come to Miami.”

That’s also the problem in Puerto Rico, home to tens of thousands of Cuban exiles.

Thirty years ago this week, Carlos Muñíz Varela, a 26-year-old political activist living in San Juan, was gunned down five months after scheduling the first flight from Puerto Rico to Cuba through his Viajes Varadero travel agency. No arrests were ever made, though right-wing Cuban exile agents were long suspected in Muñíz’s murder.

Times have changed, and now a majority of exiles living in Puerto Rico want such flights.

In mid-April, Los Angeles-based Cuba Travel Services Inc. asked the Obama administration for permission to add San Juan’s Luís Muñoz Marín International Airport as a gateway for direct service to Cuba.

Michael Zuccato, general manager of CTS, said “I think the arguments for it are really strong, considering the fact that the overwhelming majority of Cuban-Americans in Puerto Rico are over the age of 55.”

“You can fly to Cuba from Los Angeles, New York and Miami. But for people living in Puerto Rico — especially the elderly — this is really a humanitarian issue,” he said. “It’s not about bringing tourists to Cuba, it’s about reuniting people in Puerto Rico with their families in Cuba.”

Casa Cuba, a San Juan-based cultural organization that claims to represent over 40,000 Cuban-Americans and their relatives in Puerto Rico, submitted a letter to the White House in support of Zuccato’s application.

“When Cuban-Americans in Puerto Rico visit their loved ones in Cuba, they must fly to Panama or Miami before making connecting flights to Cuba,” said Michael Acevedo, president of Casa Cuba’s board of directors. “This routing is very costly and extremely inconvenient, since some travelers are forced to stay the night before continuing to or from Cuba. This clearly represents an unfair hardship on those Cuban-Americans living here.”

Zuccato, whose company has an office in the San Juan suburb of Hato Rey, said “Puerto Rico is a relatively small market, but it still needs to be served.”

His idea is to operate flights between San Juan and Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern side of the island, since many Cubans living in Puerto Rico are originally from Oriente and not Havana.

CTS is thinking about charging $595 for a round-trip ticket to Santiago de Cuba, and using ATR-72 aircraft to service that route.

That would eliminate the need for Cuban exiles to fly to Havana via Miami (a cost of around $930) or fly to Havana through the Dominican Republic (a little cheaper, at $830), or travel on Copa Airlines via Panama to Havana (over $1,000).

Acevedo, who left Cuba 15 years ago, has been back to Havana only once — and that was in 2000, for only six days.

“I think the majority of the community is in favor of this, because most of us want to visit our families,” he said in a phone interview from San Juan. “There are extreme right-wing radicals against this, but most people see this strictly as a humanitarian gesture.”

Zuccato said he has the solid backing of Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s non-voting resident commissioner in Congress, as well as that of pro-statehood Gov. Luís Fortuño.

“We submitted this application to the Bush administration years ago and never got an answer,” he said. “But this time, with more local support in Puerto Rico and a verbal commitment from Pierluisi, I’m very optimistic that this will happen soon.”

Likewise, in 2003, Delta Air Lines and Georgia state officials launched an aggressive lobbying effort to have the U.S. government designate Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport as a gateway for direct charter flights to Havana and other Cuban cities.

Nothing ever came of that effort, but AirTran Airways, with its largest hub in Atlanta, says it “has a lot of interest” in serving Cuba.

“We’d like to be one of the first ones for scheduled flights, and certainly that would include Atlanta and probably other points in Florida as well,” AirTran CEO Bob Fornaro told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Delta spokesman Kent Landers said it’s too early to say if the airline would serve Cuba, “based on the fact that we don’t know how any changes would be structured in the future.”

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