Despite Tampa’s ties to Cuba, commercial flights are elusive
Charter flights to Cuba depart from Tampa International Airport seven
times a week. The first was Sept. 8, 2011. Tribune file photoBy Paul
Guzzo | Tribune Staff Published: February 7, 2016
TAMPA — As the first commercial flights to Cuba are announced in the
coming months, Tampa is unlikely to make the list, aviation analysts say.
That puts at risk efforts by local leaders to forge modern links on the
foundation of historical connections between the two regions in the
areas of culture, business, politics and education.
Ease of travel is seen as key to capitalizing on the normalization of
relations with the communist nation, and few are predicting when a
second round of direct flights will be announced — other than to say it
could be months or even years away.
What’s more, in a worst-case scenario, the rise of commercial flights to
Cuba from other cities could push existing charter services out of
business — including those flying from Tampa seven times a week — and
leave the region with no direct connection to Cuba.
Among the casualties could be a Cuban consulate in Tampa or St.
Petersburg, pushed for by local business and political leaders, and the
direct flights home that Tampa’s Cuban-American population —
third-largest in the United States — have enjoyed since charters started
at Tampa International Airport in 2011.
“Airplanes are an expensive asset and they need to be put where they
will make the most amount of money,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel
industry analyst with the San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group.
“So unfortunately, Tampa will not be in that first wave of commercial
Miami, home to the largest Cuban-American population in the United
States, will get most of the commercial routes to Cuba at its
international airport. Even if airlines choose a second Florida city in
round one, analysts say, it likely will be nearby Fort
Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport.
“The primary carrier in Tampa is Southwest,” said George Hamlin of
Virginia-based Hamlin Transportation Consulting. Southwest has said it
is interested in commercial service to Cuba. “But Southwest may have
divided loyalties. They also have a strong carrier in Fort Lauderdale,
which has a geographic advantage.”
Not only is Fort Lauderdale closer to Miami, Hamlin said, Tampa
passengers would fly south toward Cuba through Fort Lauderdale but the
reverse is unlikely.
“You’re not going to flow people from Lauderdale to Tampa to fly them
southeast,” he said.
Fort Lauderdale along with the Tampa area is rumored to be a favorite
for the first Cuban consulate in five decades — the two nations reopened
embassies in August — and ease of travel could tip the scales, said John
Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Tampa International could maintain its charter schedule if the numbers
stay up — 71,462 people made the trip in fiscal 2015, up 10,000 from the
year before. But the numbers could drop dramatically because people from
outside the area who travel here for the charter flights would likely
choose commercial flights from other cities, instead, for amenities such
as online tickets and a crew that transfers baggage.
Charter flight passengers headed to Cuba must arrive at Tampa
International four hours early to get tickets and must haul any baggage
from connecting flights themselves.
Another challenge for the charters will be hanging onto planes and crew.
The commercial airlines now provide them to charter companies serving Cuba.
Both charter companies operating out of Tampa International, ABC
Charters and Cuba Travel Services, use American Airlines planes and crew.
American Airlines has plans to operate commercial flights out of Miami,
spokesperson Matt Miller told the Tribune, but he declined to elaborate.
He said he could not comment on whether flights are planned from Tampa.
“We do not know at this point what the future will look like in terms of
a breakdown between scheduled service and charter service,” Miller said.
In the event American does fly from Miami, transportation consultant
Hamlin said, the airlines might send Tampa customers to Miami for
flights rather than help charter companies that compete with the airline.
“Charters will be largely converted to scheduled service,” Hamlin said.
“The charter service was an accommodation when the scheduled service was
Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services, said he is
confident planes will remain available to his charter service and he
plans to continue operating here as well as in Miami.
“I think we will have fewer flights,” Zuccato said. “But the charter
component will always exist.”
The United States and Cuba struck a deal to allow as many as 110 daily
flights once commercial service begins — a maximum of 20 a day to Havana
and up to 10 each at nine other Cuban cities with international airports.
It’s a low number, analysts say, and that’s bad news for Tampa.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to begin accepting
route applications from airlines in the coming weeks.
At least five airlines have expressed interest — American, JetBlue,
United Airlines, Southwest and Delta. More are expected.
Cuba charter services focus on Florida because the state has more
Cuban-Americans than any other.
Commercial airlines, on the other hand, will use their marketing power
to sell tickets to Cuba on a national scale and will choose departure
cities to maximize business, analysts say.
Favored cities will be those located near large Cuban-American
populations and those with an airline’s major hub, said Robert Mann, an
aviation industry analyst through his New York-based R.W. Mann & Co.
Tampa’s airport is not a major hub for any airlines. And customers among
the area’s estimated 150,000 Cuban-Americans likely will be seen as
willing to make the trip to South Florida for a flight, Mann said.
For other regions — say, Tulsa, Oklahoma, — the deciding factor in
travel to Cuba may be whether there is a nearby airport with an airline
that goes there, Mann said.
Tulsa International Airport is a 90-minute connecting flight from
Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and Houston is one of two
Cuba departure sites preferred by United Airlines, said United spokesman
“We at United have expressed interest in serving Cuba from Newark and
Houston,” Johnson told the Tribune via email. “Newark and Houston are
two of United’s largest hub airports.”
Newark Liberty International Airport is in an area stretching from
northern New Jersey to New York City that has been nicknamed “Havana on
the Hudson,” with the second-largest Cuban-American population in the
Other airports that analysts predict will receive the first wave of
commercial flights to Cuba are Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International
Airport, a major hub for Delta, and New York’s John F. Kennedy
International Airport, a major hub for three airlines seeking commercial
flights to Cuba — Jet Blue, Delta and American — and located in the city
considered the U.S. capital of travel and commerce.
The 110 daily flights agreed upon may be restricted further at first
because Cuba is not ready for the influx of new visitors. That, in turn,
could limit the number of Cuba flight cities in the United States.
In 2015, Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors, up 17 percent
from 2014 due in part to more American visitors. With only an estimated
63,000 hotel rooms nationwide, Cuba is struggling to handle even this
surge — and it comes with just 12 charter flights a day on average from
the United States, according to Virginia-based Aviation Planning & Finance.
“The ability to fly many flights is there,” said transportation
consultant Hamlin. “But where are you going to put the people?”
Even if Tampa makes the cut now on route applications submitted by the
airlines to the Department of Transportation, analysts predict the
airlines would cross the city off as the number of flights shrinks.
“You really have to ration the flights and put them where they can
generate the most good,” said Harteveldt with Atmosphere Research
Group.?If the charters evaporate, too, the dream of hosting that first
Cuban consulate will, too, said Kavulich with the U.S.-Cuba Trade and
“Consulates need to be as self-sustaining as possible,” Kavulich said.
“That revenue comes primarily from visa fees, so a lack of flights would
impact that revenue source.”
Still, Kavulich said he believes Cuba will look out for Tampa, even if
private enterprise doesn’t, and work to save some charter flights here
or to add a commercial flight.
“This is also a political exercise,” he said. “Cuba may ask for a Tampa
route because it’s been aggressive with outreach.”
Tampa has exchanged dignitaries and delegations with the island nation
and forged cultural and science partnerships with Cuba.
The Tampa City Council, Hillsborough County Commission and Greater Tampa
Chamber of Commerce all have voted into bring the consulate to Tampa.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman traveled to Cuba to lobby for his
city and the St. Petersburg City Council has also voted its support.
Then there is the historic Tampa-Cuba connection dating back a century,
before Miami even was incorporated, when Cuban immigrants helped found
Ybor City. Tampa went on become the cigar capital of the world using
Tampa also was a favorite haunt for José Martí, regarded as the George
Washington of Cuba, and the city’s residents supported the island
nation’s War of Independence against Spain.
Tampa International, which has made adding international flights a
priority, isn’t ready to give up on service to Cuba, Vice President of
Marketing Chris Minner told the Tribune via email.
“We are always working with our partners to grow TPA’s existing air
service and bring in new routes,” Minner said. “Service to Cuba remains
a special focus.”
The airport needs broad-based help from the Tampa area in its effort,
said Bill Carlson, president of Tucker/Hall, a public relations agency
that has supported business and humanitarian missions in Cuba since 1999.
“I feel confident that Tampa Bay will get at least one commercial
flight, but it will take a unified effort of business, political and
cultural leaders working with the airport to make that happen,” Carlson
said. “We cannot afford to lose this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to
reclaim our historic position with Cuba.”
Source: Despite Tampa’s ties to Cuba, commercial flights are elusive |
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