First new U.S. airport gets go-ahead from Cuba


Cuba Standard: Tampa International Airport is poised to become the first of a series of additional U.S. airports that will be able to offer flights to Cuba.

Miami-based ABC Charters, a company that has been offering flights from Miami to Cuba, has secured landing rights in Cuba for flights from Tampa, the airport said in a press release. Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, told the airport that the first flight from Tampa to Cuba could start as early as Sept. 10.

In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection allowed all U.S. airports with “adequate customs and immigration capabilities” to host Cuba flights. More than a dozen airports have received approval from USCBP, but Tampa is the first to have secured a carrier service provider with landing rights in Cuba.

Aral said at a press conference in Tampa that ABC would offer once-a-week flights to Havana, with frequency rising to twice a week in October, on American Airlines-provided Boeing 737-800s. ABC Charters currently flies seven times a week to Havana and three times a week to Holguín from Miami, usually in larger jets.

At least two other travel providers are vying to offer Cuba flights from Tampa, including Air MarBrisa and Island Travel & Tours, Ltd.

Tampa is the U.S. city with the second-largest Cuban population, following Miami. There are nearly 140,000 people of Cuban ancestry living within 90 minutes of Tampa International Airport.

In Atlanta, Delta Airlines said it is already licensed to operate charter flights to Cuba. In Fort Lauderdale, Airline Broker Co., which also has a license, is vying to offer twice-weekly flights. Other airports that have expressed interest in offering Cuba flights are Dallas/Fort Worth, New Orleans, Chicago, San Juan, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore.

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Big jump seen in U.S. travel to Cuba in 2010


HAVANA (Reuters) – More than 1,000 travelers from the United States are arriving every day in Cuba on average, most of Cuban origin, making Havana’s long-time foe its second source of visitors after Canada, travel industry and diplomatic sources said Monday.

U.S. charter companies flying to the Communist-ruled island say business has boomed since President Barack Obama’s administration lifted restrictions last year on Cuban-Americans visiting their homeland, and also loosened curbs on academic, religious, cultural and other professional travel.

U.S. citizens are forbidden from traveling to Cuba without their government’s permission under a wide-ranging U.S. trade embargo on the island imposed nearly five decades ago.

“There is a huge increase this year compared with 2009,” said Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters, the oldest of a growing number of companies chartering flights to Cuba.

“Through October around 265,000 have traveled. November and December are the peak months, so we expect 330,000 will go to Cuba on direct flights from the United States this year,” Garcia said, speaking in a telephone interview from Miami.

Cuban tourism industry sources said more and more U.S. citizens or Cuba-bound travelers from the United States were also arriving through third countries such as Mexico and the Bahamas to get around the U.S. travel ban, avoid licensing hassles, or simply because it is the less expensive route.

There are no regular scheduled commercial flights between Cuba and the United States which lie less than an hour’s flight apart, separated by the Florida Straits.

“We estimate the total (visitors from the U.S. to Cuba) for the year will be more than 400,000,” a U.S. State Department source said, asking his name not be used due to restrictions on talking with journalists.

HAVANA AIRPORT EXPANSION

Cuba reported 2.4 million tourists arrived in 2009, with Canada the largest provider at close to 915,000, followed by Great Britain at 172,000 and Spain at 129,000.

The Cuban National Statistics Office (http://www.one.cu) reported that Canadian arrivals through October of this year had increased, while there was little change from Great Britain and a significant drop in Spanish tourism.

Cuba reported 52,455 arrivals from the United States in 2009, but those of Cuban origin were included under a wide separate category of “other.” Local tourism officials said 80,000 U.S. citizens came in 2008, including Cuban-Americans.

The official trade union weekly, Trabajadores, ran a front page article Monday on the expansion of the Havana airport terminal that receives U.S. flights, saying it would be completed by this Christmas and double capacity.

Marazul’s Garcia estimated U.S. travel to Cuba would increase another 30 percent in 2011.

Legislation that would have lifted entirely U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba died in Congress this year. Such initiatives will have even less chance of passage when a new Congress convenes in January, following the Republican Party’s success in the November mid-term elections.

Cuban-American Republican members of Congress are fierce and vocal opponents of opening up more U.S. travel to Cuba, saying there should be no relaxation without political change and human rights improvements on the island.

Advocates of more freedom to travel to Cuba hope the Obama administration will at least further loosen remaining restrictions, opening up more so-called ‘people to people’ contact visits that would favor sports, cultural, artistic, academic and religious exchanges.

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Allegiant Travel to stop Cuba charter service


LAS VEGAS (AP) — Allegiant Travel Co., which operates an airline marketed to leisure travelers in small cities, said Monday its Allegiant Air unit is ending charter service to Cuba.

It currently flies for five separate charter programs, and it has given 120-day notice to cancel each of those contracts.

Allegiant said while flying to Cuba has been profitable, “these programs are exposing the airline and its people to operational complexity inconsistent with our operating philosophy.”

Allegiant Air expects to return the single aircraft it currently operates to Cuba to other service later this year.

Shares fell 26 cents to $40.71 in midday trading.

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Air Italy now flies Rome-Milan-Havana


A Boeing 767 of Air Italy arrived Friday night in Havana with more than 200 passengers, initiating weekly service — every Friday — between Rome and Havana, with a stopover in Milan. The airline used to fly charter planes to Cuba from third countries in eastern Europe, such as Poland, Radio Habana says.

Air Italy

Air Italy Boeing 767

With 130,000 travelers a year, Italy is the third-largest originator of tourism to Cuba, behind Canada (first) and Britain, the radio station says.
Air Italy is an economy airline founded in May 2005, with hubs in Verona, Turin and Milan. Its fleet consists of 10 Boeings, according to industry sources.

www.particularcuba.com – Flights to Cuba

Airports Queue to Fly to Cuba


WSJ.com:

U.S. airports are pressing the government to broaden the list of ports of entry allowed to handle flights to and from Cuba, even though the White House is proceeding cautiously with changes in travel policy.

In a recent letter, Peter Horton, the director of Key West International Airport in Florida, urged the Treasury Department to add the facility to the list of three big international airports in Miami, Los Angeles and New York. Earlier this year, Tampa’s airport made a similar request. And airport officials in Houston, already one of the biggest gateways between the U.S. and Latin America, say local business leaders have pressed them to push for access to Cuba, too.

Associated PressA new Key West airport departure terminal, opened in February, is part of a big expansion of passenger facilities.

In April, the Obama administration eased restrictions on travel and money transfers to the island by U.S. citizens or residents with family in Cuba. The recent requests are an effort by cities and airports to position themselves ahead of any further loosening of travel policy.

“Cities are looking to get ready for any other moves that could mean more travelers flying back and forth between the two countries,” said Kirby Jones, a consultant in Bethesda, Md., who advises companies on business with Cuba.

A spokeswoman said the Treasury couldn’t comment on specific requests for changes to existing travel policy, but that requests were reviewed when received.

Under Treasury rules, travel to Cuba by Americans is restricted to family members of Cuban citizens, government officials, academics and others who qualify for special licenses to travel there. About 50,000 American travelers, most of whom traveled by charter flights, received licenses last year.

If the travel ban were lifted, eventually as many as one million Americans a year would visit Cuba, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, a federal agency. Already, charter operators say the changes earlier in the year have caused a spike in the number of Cuba-bound passengers.

Cuba flight booking with Particularcuba.com

Cuba flight booking with Particularcuba.com

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand,” said Tom Cooper, chairman of Gulfstream Air Charter Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., carrier that has seen a 25% increase in passengers on the flights it operates between Miami and Cuba.

For decades, travel-related businesses have decried U.S. restrictions, designed to punish Cuba’s Communist government, because the rules prevent what could be a lucrative market from developing. Last week, Orbitz Worldwide Inc., the online travel agency, emailed customers asking them to sign a petition urging the U.S. government to lift the ban on travel to and from Cuba outright. The message cites bills, introduced earlier this year in Congress, that propose to do that.

The Obama administration, despite the easing of policy since it took office, hasn’t prodded lawmakers to make the bills a priority. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said that any further changes in travel policy, or the broader and longstanding economic embargo against the Cuban regime, would depend on whether Havana takes steps toward democracy.

Still, airports angling for future Cuba service say they need to get ready. Mr. Horton, the Key West airport director, said the island’s proximity to Cuba, plus the sizable Cuban-American community living nearby, are factors that would sustain a market for charter flights. The airport has been in the process of expansion and renovation this year.

The airport’s letter to the Treasury was accompanied by a letter from Cape Air, an East Coast carrier that flies to Key West, expressing interest in flying to Cuba.

If demand for flights were to increase because of further lifting of restrictions, Mr. Horton said, “the last thing that we want is to get lost in the shuffle as people scramble to try to fly there.”

www.particularcuba.com – Flights to Cuba

New Air Routes to Jardines del Rey


DTCuba:

Havana.- The international airport on Cayo Coco, in Jardines del Rey (King’s Gardens), has improved access for thousands of foreign tourists who visit that region every year.

Inaugurated in December 2002, the airport had handled 2.3 million passengers until May 2009, reporting an average stay of 17 minutes at the terminal.

The airport’s runway, which has an international standard size, allows large planes to land and depart.

At present, the airport receives planes of the companies Cubana de Aviación, Sunwing, Thomas Cook, Airtransat, Canjet and Air Canada.

Flights come from Toronto, Montreal, Manchester, London and Buenos Aires, and the airport handles an average of 13 international operations a week, with possibilities to receive up to ten flights a day during the peak tourist season.

www.particularcuba.com – Flight booking to Cuba

Charter Companies Flying to Cuba Thrive


New York Times: MIAMI — The crowd of Cuban-Americans pressing against the airport ticket counter scorned those on the other side. Only a handful of American charter companies have landing rights in Cuba, and with the new White House policy letting Cuban-Americans visit relatives there as often as they want, ticket prices have become political.

“I paid $600 for a 45-minute flight,” said Carelis Sabatela, in loud Spanish, before checking in with a cart of heavy luggage. “It’s very high, super excessive.”

Like many in line, she called for more competition, but as the current boom in reservations shows, this is not a normal business. Who flies and how much they charge is intimately tied to the 50-year feud between Cuba and the United States. Experts describe these charter companies as byproducts of a dysfunctional back-and-forth that has not ended — and that now promises to provide millions of dollars in profit to a politically savvy few.

“The system exists solely because the relationship between Cuba and the United States doesn’t exist in its normal form,” said John S. Kavulich II, a senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonpartisan group that tracks trade activity in Cuba. “You have an abnormal service environment directly because of abnormal relations.”

Today’s charter companies began in the late 1970s during a period of warming relations, and most owners figured that their role would be temporary. The companies survived not just because Fidel Castro and the American embargo kept larger carriers out; many of the owners have also played both sides, deploying money and favors under the cover of dual identities that let them connect with Cuban leaders one minute, Americans the next.

John Cabanas, of C&T Charters, is perhaps the least known but the most powerful owner in a group that includes Vivian Mannerud, who followed her father into the business after he was convicted in the 1980s of “trading with the enemy,” in part for taking four Pepsi machines to Cuba; and Francisco Aruca, owner of Marazul Charters, who sneaked out of a Castro-run prison dressed as a child, but now praises Cuba on his Miami radio show.

A large man, quick to laugh and partial to linen Guayaberas with a gold plane pinned to the collar, Mr. Cabanas, 66, grew up in Key West, Fla., but spent 28 years in Cuba. He says his company is the largest of the seven or eight that fly there regularly.

Certainly since the new White House policy was announced last month, business is booming. “We used to send 15,000, 16,000 people a year,” Mr. Cabanas said. “Now I’ll probably handle 40,000 or 50,000.”

He insists that his prices — though at least double the cost of flying to the Bahamas — are fair when seen in context. In his view, customers like Ms. Sabatela, who was traveling on a C&T flight to Camagüey, fail to appreciate the industry’s challenges.

The past decade has been especially tough. The cost of fuel and jet rentals have increased while the Bush administration’s tighter travel restrictions in 2004 halved the number of legal American visitors from a peak of 135,000 in 2000, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The government has also demanded reams of paperwork from the charter operators, proving that they have complied with various rules — which led in part to a $125,000 penalty settlement that C&T paid in 1999.

The Cuban government has demands as well: it prohibits the charters from hiring in Cuba, and charges $100 to $133 per passenger for landing rights, baggage claim and other services.

Mr. Cabanas admits that the industry is “very controlled.”

“My business is business,” he said. “But it depends on politics.”

His office illustrates the point. In a back conference room, photographs on the walls show him with four very different leaders: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Fidel Castro and Álvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia.

Since returning to Florida in the late ’90s, Mr. Cabanas has also spread more than $145,000 in campaign donations across the political spectrum. “Right now, I support Barack Obama,” he said, “even though I’m a Republican.”

Mr. Cabanas had just come from a Cinco de Mayo party at the White House, but his connections and charm have done nothing to alter the controversial basics of his business.

The industry “is in essence a protected monopoly,” Mr. Kavulich said. “There are a finite number of people in the marketplace, and you have to have the Cuban government’s authorization.”

Cuban officials, he said, want as few companies as possible, and “if they can’t Google you and find you’ve opposed the commercial, economic or political position of the United States, you’re not likely to do any business.”

That means approved operators earn a lot during open moments. A recent poll by Bendixen and Associates found that about 240,000 Cuban-Americans plan to travel to Cuba by the end of 2010.

If round-trip tickets continue to hover around $500, with a 10 percent markup, that would be around $12 million in profit.

In interviews, several charter operators described their flights as humanitarian and insisted that politics did not enter into conversations with Cuban officials.

They all oppose the embargo, which puts them squarely in line with the stated desire of Cuban officials, but also with a growing swath of the 1.2 million Cuban-Americans in the United States.

And yet, many here see the companies’ owners as relics of a past they would like to get beyond. For Cubans, the charters’ prices and profits are pinpricks in a wound that has not healed.

Conservatives still accuse the charters of being collaborators.

“They are a virtual cartel that control the travel sector from the U.S. to Cuba, charging egregious fees in collusion with Cuban authorities,” said Mauricio Claver Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington.

More moderate Cuban-Americans are only slightly kinder.

“Do they charge more than they should? They do,” said Andy S. Gomez, a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. “Are there any other alternatives? None.”

Well, not yet, but momentum for broader changes in Cuba policy has been building. Last week, Orbitz, the online travel company, began offering a $100 coupon for a vacation in Cuba to everyone who signed an online petition urging leaders in the United States to give all Americans the freedom to visit.

Jose Fernandez, one of the dozens waiting here to board a C&T flight to Cuba, said he would welcome new alternatives. “The prices,” Mr. Fernandez said, “are out of balance with the moment.”

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