CubaNews / March 2012
By Larry Luxner
Imagine boarding a Boeing 727 jet at Baltimore-Washington International right after lunch, and landing in Havana just in time for a late-afternoon stroll along the Malecón.
Within six months, businessman William J. Hauf hopes his company will be offering weekly BWI-HAV charter flights, and maybe twice-a-week flights if demand warrants it. That would mark the first time in history — even before Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution — that the capital cities of the United States and Cuba are linked by regular nonstop service.
“There have never been flights from BWI to Havana, so it’s a big story,” he said. “That’s why journalists have expressed such an interest to be on the inaugural flight.”
Hauf, interviewed earlier this month over breakfast in Fort Lauderdale, is president of Island Travel & Tours Ltd., a Tampa-based outfit that specializes in Cuba. The inaugural flight Hauf dreams of was supposed to take off Mar. 21 — right around Easter recess — but poor ticket sales forced him to put off that dream for at least another six months.
“We didn’t have enough interest to get the 80 passengers we needed to break even,” he told CubaNews, noting that fewer than 10 tickets were actually sold. “We began promoting in mid-January, which turned out to be an inadequate amount of time — nothing that could develop into a large enough market.”
Hauf said the market for the Baltimore area will consist of categories of people who may already visit Cuba — government staffers, think tanks, universities, religious groups, architectural schools, law schools, journalists and entities like the IMF, the World Bank and the World Health Organization.
Hauf, 67, didn’t start out in the travel business — nor did he originally have any particular interest in Cuba. A native New Yorker, he made his money in the California real-estate boom, investing mainly in apartments.
In 1988, he put together a 2,600-acre project in San Diego County consisting of 1,600 single-family homes. His Cuba obsession began in a conversation had 15 years ago with a woman whose ex-boyfriend had visited Cuba.
“We were on a plane to go scuba-diving in the Cayman Islands, and we flew over Cuba,” he recalled. “I asked what that island was, and it piqued my curiosity because I didn’t know much about it.”
Before long, Hauf was helping distribute a magazine called “Business Tips on Cuba” being published by Isidoro Malmierca, Cuba’s former foreign minister (and the father of current foreign trade and investment minister Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz). After the elder Malmierca’s death, the magazine ceased publication.
“I happened to be in Cuba in 1996, when those two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down. It was a Saturday, Feb. 19, and all air traffic had been halted,” recalled Hauf. The businessman estimates he’s been to Cuba more than 100 times in the last 16 years — constantly looking for ways around the U.S. embargo that’s crimped bilateral trade for the last half-century.
In 1998, Hauf finally got serious about Cuba and called Gary Jarmin, a Washington political consultant with ties to the Republican Party.
“We discussed how we might be able to open the Cuba issue so there would be more dialogue,” he recalled. “Jerry had five different ideas, but when he got to #3, I stopped him. The idea was to get President Clinton to establish a bipartisan national commission to review Cuba policy.”
Hauf wrote a letter to Clinton, and a month and a half later got an encouraging response from Sandy Berger, who was Clinton’s national security advisor.
“I relocated from San Diego to Washington solely to push the commission idea. I rented a place on Wisconsin Avenue and got up every morning, knocking on doors in Capitol Hill and going to the House and Senate buildings with a letter in my hand, giving it to legislative aides and asking if their boss would be interested in promoting the commission,” he said.
“The idea was that they would write a letter to the president requesting the same thing,” he said.”I got nobody to back me up on this, but I felt it was the right thing to do.”
Hauf finally struck gold with an aide to Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who later became chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. That ultimately led to a “Dear Colleague” letter with 12 signatories including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Larry Eagle-burger and other prominent Republicans — all urging a review of Cuba policy.
“Up until now, this issue had been a Democratic issue. Our effort was to bring Republi-cans into the issue so that it would become bipartisan,” Hauf said, noting that 25 senators eventually signed onto the idea.
Ultimately, the Clinton administration turned it down, he said, “reasoning that Al Gore had asked him not to, because Gore was going to run for president and he didn’t want to continue with a commission that might go against the wishes of the Cuban-American community.”
However, two weeks after that rejection, Clinton announced he would expand people-to-people travel to Cuba. While Hauf doesn’t want to take credit for that, he does say that his letter-writing campaign “brought Cuba to the forefront of his priorities. I would hope that because of strong Republican support from two former secretaries of state, that would have been an attention-grabber.”
Encouraged by the new opening, in early 1999, Hauf wrote to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, requesting a Travel Service Provider license, a Carrier Service Provider license and a Remittance Forwarding license.
“In May 2000, I got all three licenses,” he said. “I also applied for a license from the Department of Commerce to ship playground equipment to Cuba. At that time, I was making money off the apartments, and got 62 volunteers to build playgrounds. I rented an A320 from Airtran, and we took the volunteers on a nonstop flight from Baltimore to Havana. That was my first flight from BWI.”
Why playgrounds, we asked him.
“Having traveled to Cuba a number of times, I met many Cuban families,” he said. “One had a four-year-old daughter, and we would go to the park on weekends. We saw antiquated, 50-year-old equipment, broken see-saws, swings with missing chains, and I kept thinking how wonderful it would be for these kids to have a playground to play in.”
In 2003, Hauf incorporated It’s Just the Kids Inc., a Section 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to building playgrounds in Cuba.
With help from Fernando Remírez, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, and his counterpart in Havana, Vicki Huddleston, “we built our first three playgrounds: one in Regla, one in Vedado, near the Hotel Presidente, and the third in Marianao.”
In September 2005, the group built four more, in the Havana districts of Cotorro, San Augustín, Arroyo Naranjo and Guanabacoa.
Asked if any embargo supporters on Capitol Hill have ever criticized his charitable work in Cuba, Hauf said not at all — “because the work I’ve done has been to help the Cuban community. I have a long track record of supporting Cuban children and seeing that they have a safe place to play. The playgrounds we build are put into neighborhoods, not behind government buildings.”
In March 1999, Hauf traveled to Cuba to watch the Baltimore Orioles make history, as the first Major League Baseball team to set foot in Cuba in 40 years (the last time had been Mar. 21, 1959, when the Cincinnati Reds played the Los Angeles Dodgers).
Fittingly, said Hauf, BWI was the first U.S. airport from which he requested government permission to offer flights to Cuba.
“I felt that Baltimore was perfect for what I was trying to do, which was to bring the two countries closer together,” he said. “I thought that if there were a direct flight from BWI to Havana, more officials from Washington think tanks and policy institutes would travel to Cuba, get to know its people — and through that, a dialogue could be established.”
In addition, he said, “BWI is along the East Coast corridor that has I-95 and Amtrak, so people as far north as New Jersey, Philadelphia and Delaware can come right to the airport by train. Dulles is somewhat isolated, and you have to take a bus or taxi or some other means to get to it.”
But Hauf was told that he couldn’t be granted CSP status from Baltimore because BWI was not on the approved list of airports.
“So I changed it to Miami, although we knew Cuba wouldn’t give us permission [to fly from Miami] because there were already eight companies serving that market,” he said. “In July 2008, I went down to Cuba and met with Tony Díaz, vice-president of Havanatur, and told him that from all indications, Sen. Obama would be elected president.
“Therefore, I wished to request landing rights to Baltimore but also include Tampa, because Tampa has one of the largest Cuban-American populations in the United States.” Hauf enlisted the support of Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) as well as Louis Miller, then-executive director of Tampa International Airport, and several other organizations including the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce and the World Trade Center of Tampa Bay.
On Jan. 21, 2011, the Obama administration announced the list of new cities, and Tampa was on it. But that’s not enough, he says.
“I hope President Obama will show the leadership he professed in his campaign,” Hauf declared. “The most definitive statement he could make regarding Cuba would be to fly Air Force One to Havana’s José Martí Airport and show that we are a strong nation and can talk to anyone.”
On Nov. 6, 2011, Island Travel & Tours began flying once a week between Tampa and Havana, charging $445 round-trip including taxes and fees. His planes are leaving full.
“We have a waiting list of people but have not been able to accommodate them because we don’t have extra seats,” Hauf said, adding that he’s asked Cuba for permission to offer more flights but hasn’t heard back yet.“
“It’s a very competitive market, and prices haven’t yet stabilized. The cost of a single ticket to a charter company [between Tampa and Havana] is at least $500, and can be as much as $532 based on landing fees. We’re losing money on every ticket we sell.
“That’s why if we filled a flight with non-Cuban-Americans, we’d lose money because they don’t bring excess baggage. However, we invite them to fly with us, particularly in groups, so we can make all their ground services in Cuba. Those revenues help offset the loss we experience on their ticket sales.”
In contrast, said Hauf, the average Cuban exile brings 100 lbs of luggage — and that’s down from an initial $150 per passenger.
Hauf said his passengers are carrying mainly food items; one customer recently showed up with a 70-lb suitcase filled with coffee. Other suitcases are crammed with medicines, toothpaste, shampoo, linens, towels, children’s clothing, toys and Pampers. Hauf’s company charges $1.50/lb, though the two other Cuba charters out of Tampa — ABC Charters and Xael — charge $2/lb.
“Hopefully at some point, we’ll be able to make a profit,” he said. “Since we’re flying more frequently from Tampa, we now have clients going every few weeks, so the amount of excess baggage they’re taking is considerably less than when these flights first began.”
For the moment, he said, of the dozen or so new gateway charter cities to Cuba, only Tampa and Fort Lauderdale are doing well — and that’s because they’re drawing on the local Cuban-American population to fill seats.
In New York, for example, Marazul pulled out from that market after many years. “Then when Obama made his announcement, Marazul wanted back in and got two flights, but then said they would terminate those flights,” Hauf said. “They also terminated their flights out of Atlanta, which surprised me.”
Under an accord with Xael, Hauf’s passengers who can’t stay a whole week in Cuba may fly back to Tampa on Xael’s Thursday flight.
“That’s why we chose to do our Baltimore flights on a Wednesday, so that people could go for only half a week, return on our Sunday flight to Tampa and get a connection to BWI.”
He added: “Tampa has the same challenge BWI has in recruiting international carriers. The people who work as air services development managers travel around the world, talking to those foreign carriers and trying to recruit them to establish routes. They see Cuba as a great opening. Once we begin, we hope there will be a flight every week until such time we’ll have enough passengers to open a second flight. That’s our goal, to have a minimum two flights a week.”
BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean agreed.
“The Washington region has many organizations and institutions which would benefit from nonstop charters. It would be a very nice service for BWI to feature,” he told us.
“Cuba is a niche market, one that under current legislation is not available to your typical leisure traveler. But there is a specialized market for this service,” said Dean, whose airport handled 22.4 million passengers in 2011 and offers flights to London, Toronto, Aruba, Cancún, Freeport, Nassau and Montego Bay.
Hauf remains hopeful he’ll launch his head-line-making charters to Havana later this year.
“We need more time to make people aware of these flights,” he told us. “Under DOT regulations, until we choose an exact date, I can’t promote flights. But clearly we’ll have to do more promotion because groups take four or five months to prepare for. We’re looking at the fall as a starting point because by then, there should be sufficient demand.”