Castor pushes for direct flights from Tampa to Cuba
By David Adams, Times Latin America Correspondent
In Print: Friday, August 21, 2009
A sharp increase in travel to Cuba in recent months is prompting local
politicians and airport officials to press the Obama administration to
allow direct flights between the communist-ruled island and Tampa.
Currently, only Miami, New York and Los Angeles are authorized to handle
direct flights. Several cities — including Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston
and Key West — have expressed interest lately.
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, moved quickly in April to add Tampa to the
list after President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on travel by
Cuban-Americans to the island.
In a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Castor predicted
monthly visits to Cuba would triple from 10,000 to 30,000.
This "will create a need for a substantial increase in the number of
direct air charter flights from the U.S. to Cuba," she wrote.
So far the increase has not been as large as Castor forecast, but some
travel companies have reported a 100 percent to 150 percent rise.
"It's been tremendous," said Armando Garcia, president of Marazul
Charter, which operates several flights a week from Miami to Cuba.
Garcia likes the idea of opening the Tampa route.
Castor argues it makes more sense for those living in western Florida to
be able to fly direct, rather than have the added expense of going to Miami.
"Let's not just have a gesture, let's make it meaningful," she said in a
recent phone interview. "If you are going to lift those travel
restrictions for families, then make it easy for those families to
follow through and visit their loved ones."
But some experts wonder if Tampa Bay can generate enough passenger
traffic to Cuba to make it profitable for charter companies to establish
operations there. The Cuban community in Tampa dates to an earlier
period than Miami's, and family ties to the island are weaker.
"I don't think there is a big enough Cuba community there," said Tessie
Aral, president of Miami-based ABC Charters, one of eight Miami charter
companies licensed to sell flights to several destinations in Cuba.
"It would make a lot of sense to fly to Cuba out of Tampa, not just for
Tampa Bay, but for North and Central Florida as well," said Henry
Mendoza, president of Agencia 12 y 23, one of four Tampa area travel
companies handling travel to Cuba.
"We are moving about 400 people a month," he added, up about 20 percent
from last year.
But he questioned local government support in Tampa, compared to
well-financed lobbying efforts by Houston and New Orleans.
Tampa airport officials strongly back the idea.
"Charter companies have contacted us and said they would like to do it,"
said Louis Miller, director of Tampa International Airport.
Opening a charter route now might give Tampa an advantage when all
Americans are allowed to travel to the island, he added. "There may be
changes on travel for Americans in the near future and we'd like to have
a leg up."
Legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress earlier this year
to scrap all travel restrictions to Cuba, and could be voted on this
fall. Such a move could boost annual visits to Cuba to 1 million from
the current 200,000 mark.
Castor said her interest in the issue stems from constituent requests to
visit sick or dying relatives during the Bush administration when
Cuban-Americans were permitted only one visit every three years.
When Obama was elected, Castor was among those encouraging him to ease
restrictions on travel and remittances. Besides writing to the Treasury
Department, she also hand-delivered a briefing package to Obama's chief
of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
"I told him, 'Rahm, this is something that is not on the big-issue radar
screen, but it matters in the lives of Cuban-American families, and
Florida families.' "
She also buttonholed Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on the issue during a
visit to Tampa earlier this month.
Fast action is unlikely, analysts say. At least five government agencies
have a say in the matter.
"Last I heard, they are not looking at a broad expansion, but maybe just
a couple of places," said Castor. "We hope to be one of them."
David Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Castor pushes for direct flights from Tampa to Cuba – St. Petersburg
Times (21 August 2009)