Florida airports preparing for higher demand for flights to Cuba
By William E. Gibson and Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel
9:49 p.m. EST, February 6, 2011
Airport officials in Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Key West and possibly
Orlando plan to seek federal permission to establish direct flights to
Cuba under new travel rules implemented last month by the Obama
administration to reach out to the Cuban people.
They hope to tap a growing market of Cuban-Americans and members of
religious, educational and cultural groups who can now travel more
freely to the island.
Their main goal, however, is to prepare for a major surge of traffic if
the two nations remove all travel barriers for American tourists. The
United States first imposed partial trade and travel restrictions in
1960 — and made it a near-total embargo in 1962 — in hopes of
undercutting the Fidel Castro regime.
"If relations change between the two countries, we'd certainly like to
be well-positioned to take advantage," said Doug Webster, director of
administration and strategic planning for the Broward County Aviation
Department. "If we ever get to that point, the potential is big."
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Tampa international airports already have
told the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency they would like to
host direct flights. Key West International Airport is preparing an
application, and Orlando International Airport is considering applying.
"We're looking toward the future, and there's a possibility of regime
change in Cuba," said Phil Brown, executive director of the Greater
Orlando Aviation Authority. "What we've seen over the years is that once
these changes occur there's a rapid need, and you're better off to be
prepared rather than scramble after the fact to get ready."
President Barack Obama's decision in 2009 to remove restrictions on
Cuban-American travel has roughly doubled passenger trips on authorized
charter flights to Cuba. The latest rules change, which took effect on
Jan. 28, will increase the flow by easing limits on religious groups and
some other travelers with a special reason to go to Cuba.
In the short run, tourism expert say, these changes will have relatively
little impact on Florida's huge travel industry. Nevertheless, charter
companies predict that the increased flow of students, researchers,
artists and missionaries — combined with more frequent Cuban-American
visits — could create hundreds of jobs.
Perhaps more important, greater exposure to Cuba for some Americans may
stoke public demands on Congress to remove the U.S. ban on tourist
travel. That would lead to hundreds of thousands of American visits each
year, said Abraham Pizam, dean of tourism management at the University
of Central Florida.
"It will be a mass market," Pizam predicted. "Everybody is curious. And
unless the prices change, Cuba is a big bargain."
An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people took U.S. charter flights to Cuba
last year, more than 90 percent of them Cuban-Americans. That's up from
roughly 200,000 in 2009, when Obama allowed unrestricted Cuban-American
travel to the island.
To the dismay of embargo advocates, Obama removed restrictions imposed
by President George W. Bush that limited Cuban-Americans to one trip
every three years. Now they can go as often as they want to visit family
Last month, Obama again loosened the rules, this time to allow
universities and religious groups to sponsor trips on a general license,
which means they don't have to seek permission for each trip. The latest
rules also make it easier for cultural groups and some other travelers
to get a special license to go to Cuba. And more airports can seek
permission to service direct flights, beyond the current three in New
York, Miami and Los Angeles.
Tom Cooper, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Gulfstream Air Charter,
said traffic on his flights between Miami and Havana roughly doubled in
the past year.
During the Bush years, his company used a 19-seat airplane and flew two
flights daily. He now operates one flight daily between Miami and Havana
using a 737 jet that can hold 146 passengers.
He books fewer passengers than the capacity on the way down — or adds an
extra small plane just for cargo — to accommodate all the toiletries,
food, clothes, shoes and other goods that Cuban-Americans take to their
If the latest rule change creates enough demand, Cooper would consider
adding flights from Tampa.
"I don't think it will be a landslide of people," he said. "And it will
take a while to ramp up."
Would-be travelers from Florida's university community face special
restrictions because the state Legislature in 2006 banned the use of
state funds to travel to federally designated "terrorist states," such
as Cuba and Iran.
Such limits are strongly backed by some Cuban-American leaders and other
embargo proponents, who fear that American travel puts money in the
hands of the Castro regime.
"The travel money that goes to Cuba delays the day when this [Castro]
government or any other will have to really open up and say to Cubans,
'You can buy and sell and engage in trade just like any other normal
society,' " said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a
Free Cuba, based in Arlington, Va. "These measures have emboldened the
Administration officials say the new rules will encourage
people-to-people contacts and spread information to Cuba, empowering
those who push for democratic reforms.
Charter carriers say they just want to meet the demand from many
Americans who yearn to go to Cuba and do not want to break the law by
traveling through third countries.
"The passengers have increased just because we have more flights, and
it's more convenient to travel there. The process is streamlined," said
Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services, which operates
charters from Los Angeles and Miami. "Before, we had to check how much
money they took, herd them into special areas, put them through more
security. Now they are treated like regular passengers, just like