Tampa International Airport wins approval to begin Cuba flights
By Steve Huettel and Justin George, Times Staff Writers
In Print: Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Travelers will be able to fly directly from Tampa International Airport
to Cuba for the first time in nearly 50 years under the airport's
federal designation Monday as a gateway to the island.
A handful of charter flights could start this summer, perhaps one or two
a week, said Joe Lopano, the airport's chief executive. Flights will
still be restricted to passengers with close relatives in Cuba, people
traveling for medical and agricultural business, or taking part in
cultural, educational or religious activities.
More than 80,000 Cuban-Americans live in the Tampa Bay area, the
third-largest population in the United States after South Florida and
metro New York. They've had to drive to Miami, which along with New York
and Los Angeles were the only federally approved gateways for Cuba
flights until Monday.
"Cuban-Americans in our community and businesses conducting legal trade
with Cuba can now save time and money by flying nonstop from Tampa,"
said Bob Rohrlack, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Alfredo Rosello of South Tampa, a retired letter carrier with an uncle,
aunt and ''bunches of cousins" in Cuba, said the trip to Miami adds
about $200 to his travel expenses.
"There's the wear and tear on your car, the gas, the food, the hotel
room," said Rosello, who made his 15th journey to Cuba since 1990
earlier this year. "You've got to go the day before to get the (early
Tampa International was among eight airports nationally named as new
gateways by U.S. Customs and Border Protection — and the only one in
Florida. Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Key West also had applied.
"From an image standpoint, this tells the community that we're an
international city," Lopano said. "And it's important to get that word out."
Not everyone was happy with the news. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a
Republican from Miami, criticized the expansion of flights to Cuba as an
economic boost for the Castro regime. Meanwhile, free-trade deals with
allies like South Korea, Colombia and Panama are stalled, he said.
"Increasing direct or charter aircraft flights with state sponsors of
terrorism is totally irresponsible," he said in a statement. "Instead of
doing business with regimes that undermine America's security … we
should be bolstering our democratic allies."
Rubio failed last month to block the expansion of gateway airports with
an amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration funding bill.
Miami ranks as the largest host of Cuba flights. Last year, nearly
320,000 travelers flew to Cuba and back through Miami International. The
airport averaged more than 10 departing flights daily.
About 30 percent of that business comes from the Tampa Bay area,
estimate charter aircraft companies in Miami. But Tampa International
will start much smaller.
Three licensed charter operators have said they want to provide service
to Cuba from Tampa: Air MarBrisa of Tampa, Island Travel & Tours Ltd. in
San Diego and ABC Charter in Miami. The companies must receive landing
rights to specific cities from the Cuban government and line up charter
airlines to fly the route.
About 150 passengers are expected to travel on each of one or two
initial weekly flights, Lopano said. Tickets will likely sell for close
to the typical $500 round-trip fare from Miami, he said. "But as we get
additional flights and the market expands, you get some price movement
downward," he said.
Lopano expects the flights will go to Havana, but other cities are
possible. Before the Cuba trade embargo was enacted in 1962, National
Airlines flew DC-7s daily from Tampa International.
This is the latest move by the Obama administration to ease travel
restrictions to Cuba. In 2009, Obama undid many of the restrictions
imposed by the Bush administration, lifting all curbs on family visits
and money transfers for Cuban-Americans with family on the island.
Under the new policy they were also allowed to send more types of
humanitarian aid to Cuba, from clothing and personal hygiene items to
seeds and fishing equipment. The latest move does nothing to affect the
original economic embargo.
Steve Huettel an be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8128.
Or maybe a ferry?
If flying isn't your thing, how about taking a cruise to Cuba? The
Sun-Sentinel reports that a former cruise line executive has applied to
the U.S. Treasury Department for permission to establish a ferry line to
Cuba from the Port of Tampa, Port Everglades and the Port of Miami.
"The Cuba part requires government approval, but we are talking about
ferry service throughout the Caribbean," Bruce Nierenberg told the South
Nierenberg, former chief executive of Scandinavian World Cruises,
envisions the ferries carrying about 1,200 passengers paying about $150
for a chair or $300 for a cabin.
"Eventually, somebody is going to make this happen. And Tampa would be
the right fit," said Wade Elliott, senior director of marketing for the
Tampa Port Authority.