Tampa No. 2 for Cuba flights
By Ted Jackovics
For years, the local Cuban-American community has lobbied for the chance to fly to the island nation from Tampa International Airport, an effort that finally paid off this year when the federal government gave its OK.
So far, at least, that decision has proved to be a wise one, both for Bay area residents and the charter airlines offering service to Cuba from here. A year ago, you couldn’t fly to Cuba from Tampa International; now, the airport offers the second-most flights to Cuba of any airport in the country, second only to Miami International.
And ticket sales are strong for many of those flights.
“We are doing very well,” said Tessie Aral, president of Miami-based ABC Charters, adding that December holiday traffic has been predictably strong based on Cuban-American travel patterns from Miami. “How well things go in the spring will be affected by the economy.”
Three charter airlines offer service from Tampa to Havana, and ABC Charters surprised local boosters by adding service in November to Holguín, Cuba.
Tuesday afternoon’s ABC Charters flight to Holguín sold all 115 seats. ABC Charters’ website showed 34 seats available on Tuesday’s inbound flight from Holguín, 20 available on the Saturday departure for Havana and 25 available on the inbound from Havana that day.
Tampa’s four weekly Cuba charter flights are modest compared with about 60 at Miami. Those numbers are from a survey of schedules that vary by season and can change overnight.
But that’s more than New York and Los Angeles, airports with longstanding U.S-Cuba charter rights, and the 14 other airports U.S. and Cuban government officials approved this year along with Tampa.
Tampa-Cuba charters have operated since September, but traveler demand indicates Tampa International has a good chance of maintaining its distinction as a leading airport for Cuba service, Aral said.
“I really hope to see Tampa grow some more,” said Aral, who surprised some in the aviation industry with the Tampa-Holguín startup. That decision was aided by scheduling and availability of American Airlines Boeing 737s she charters.
Tampa International officials also say they expect Tampa-to-Cuba demand to stay strong despite competition from other U.S. airports.
Tampa International will serve 9,000 Cuba passengers this year and expects 43,000 in 2012, Tampa International spokeswoman Janet Zink said.
“We don’t see any reason the flights cannot sustain traffic,” Zink said, referring also to flights arranged by XAEL Charters and Island Travel & Tours. “People say they previously were not able to get to Cuba because they would have had to drive to Miami for a flight.”
IBC Airways Inc. got local approval on Dec. 8 to haul excess baggage for XAEL flights, and Island Travel & Tours will follow its Tampa-Cuba launch with Cuba flights from Baltimore.
The outlook for Cuba travel in 2012 remains positive, local business officials say, despite the uncertain U.S. economy and always dicey political challenges, including a recent unsuccessful attempt in Congress to roll back the liberalized travel policy that allowed the additional flights.
Though business leaders are happy with the strong demand for flights to Cuba, they see the real upside in years to come, when communities with relationships with Cuba will have an advantage in business and trade.
“If you expect Cuba to be open, with most restrictions gone in another five years, it’s time now to begin planting seeds to work on relationships,” said Steve Michelini, a director of World Trade Center Tampa Bay, who flew with a group of seven to Cuba on a trade mission in September.