A Miami air charter company hopes to start selling tickets from Tampa International Airport to Havana next week. But ABC Charters can expect competition soon.
Xael Charters, also based in Miami, announced Thursday that it also received authorization from the Cuban government this week to fly the Tampa-Havana route. Like ABC, Xael already operates charter flights, mostly for Cuban-Americans, from Miami to Havana and Holguin in eastern Cuba.
Xael president Xiomara Levy said the company didn't have a deal with an airline to fly the Tampa trips yet. She couldn't say how long that might take.
Phones were ringing briskly at ABC Charters on Thursday, the day after president Tessie Aral appeared at a Tampa International news conference to talk about what will be the first Tampa-Havana flights in a half century.
She expects to launch the weekly service in September and add a second flight in October. It typically takes 30 days to fill the 737-800 jet's 145 seats, said Aral. So, she wants the schedule locked in and paperwork in place to start selling tickets next week.
Round-trip fares should be $399 to $459, about the same as ABC's Miami-Havana flights.
For years, Cuban-Americans across Central Florida flew or drove to Miami, which, along with New York and Los Angeles were the only federally approved gateways to Cuba. In March, Tampa International was among eight new airports added to the list.
In a lot of ways, flying to the island nation is different from traveling most anywhere else.
Under its embargo against Cuba, the United States has limited which citizens can travel to Cuba and spend money there. Visits strictly for tourism are illegal.
Exemptions exist for Cuban-Americans visiting relatives, journalists, those on professional and academic research trips and people on religious and humanitarian missions.
You also can't just book a flight on the Internet or through any travel agent. Only a federally licensed "travel service provider'' can sell tickets. And only a licensed "carrier service provider'' — such as ABC Charters and Xael — can arrange the public charter flights.
To make it even more complicated, some carrier service provider companies, including ABC and Xael, also are licensed to sell tickets. Some aren't.
Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report.