Spring Hill resident Arturo Rodriguez set foot in Cuba on Thursday for the first time since 1959, the year Fidel Castro took power. He was there to see the younger brother and sister he'd only talked with by phone all those years. • "I want to go before I die," the 81-year-old said before boarding a plane to Havana at Tampa International Airport.
All sorts of personal stories like Rodriguez's flew on Sky King Flight 1221, the first nonstop commercial flight between Tampa and Cuba since 1962. Families headed to long-overdue reunions: three cousins in canary yellow from head to foot in honor of a patron saint of Cuba; four Tampa businessmen carrying 100 baseballs for kids in Havana.
The nearly sold-out charter flight to Havana took off from Tampa on Thursday afternoon, linking cities with long historical and cultural ties.
The 75-minute flight carried 89 customers filling most of the Boeing 737's 100 seats. Each paid $445 round trip, plus $2 a pound for luggage. The trip culminated a yearslong effort by airport and political leaders to win federal approval for nonstop flights to Cuba.
For years, thousands of bay area Cuban-Americans spent extra time and money to fly from Miami International, which along with New York and Los Angeles were the only federally approved gateways to the island nation. In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection added Tampa International and seven other airports to the list.
Now, two companies offer one round trip flight a week to Havana — Xael Charters and ABC Charters on Saturday. Island Travel & Tours of Tampa will start a Sunday round trip Nov. 6. The companies lease planes from operators like Sky King and sell the seats to passengers.
"Obviously, we're thrilled the first flight was (nearly) sold out," said Chris Minner, TIA's vice president of marketing. "These new flights are stimulating new demand for people unable or unwilling to fly to Miami."
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.
That's enough to support more than three weekly flights from TIA, said William Huff of Island Travel & Tours. He predicts the airport will have at least one Havana flight each day during the busy December holiday season.
Xael Charters expects demand for Tampa flights will grow slowly. The strong presence of discount carriers like Southwest will bring people from around the country to Tampa International for Havana flights, said Mercy Casals, Axel's executive vice president.
"You'll have people coming as tourists and spending their dollars here," she said.
Travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens is limited to Cuban-Americans with close relatives on the island, and people on business, educational, religious or humanitarian trips. President Barack Obama relaxed rules in January to allow "people-to-people" exchanges organized by licensed organizations and individuals. Travel strictly for tourism remains illegal.
Business at Sky King's TIA ticket counter was brisk. Travelers pushed carts weighted down with duffel bags and inexpensive suitcases stuffed with food and clothes for relatives in Cuba.
Carlos Reyes of Tampa was unhappy that Xael charged $2 per pound for luggage — twice as much as the price at the Miami airport. His seven bags came to $550.
"We thought Tampa would be easy," said Reyes, a hotel restaurant server. "But it's too expensive."
Mady Acosta, 21, was born in Cuba and left for Tampa at age 13. This was her seventh trip back to see grandparents, uncles and cousins near Havana.
"What are we going to do?" she said. "Oh, my God, we're going to have a party."
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.