Travelers will be able to fly directly from Tampa International Airport to Cuba for the first time in nearly 50 years under the airport's federal designation Monday as a gateway to the island.
A handful of charter flights could start this summer, perhaps one or two a week, said Joe Lopano, the airport's chief executive. Flights will still be restricted to passengers with close relatives in Cuba, people traveling for medical and agricultural business, or taking part in cultural, educational or religious activities.
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. They've had to drive to Miami, which along with New York and Los Angeles were the only federally approved gateways for Cuba flights until Monday.
"Cuban-Americans in our community and businesses conducting legal trade with Cuba can now save time and money by flying nonstop from Tampa," said Bob Rohrlack, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Alfredo Rosello of South Tampa, a retired letter carrier with an uncle, aunt and ''bunches of cousins" in Cuba, said the trip to Miami adds about $200 to his travel expenses.
"There's the wear and tear on your car, the gas, the food, the hotel room," said Rosello, who made his 15th journey to Cuba since 1990 earlier this year. "You've got to go the day before to get the (early morning) plane."
Tampa International was among eight airports nationally named as new gateways by U.S. Customs and Border Protection — and the only one in Florida. Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Key West also had applied.
"From an image standpoint, this tells the community that we're an international city," Lopano said. "And it's important to get that word out."
Not everyone was happy with the news. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Miami, criticized the expansion of flights to Cuba as an economic boost for the Castro regime. Meanwhile, free-trade deals with allies like South Korea, Colombia and Panama are stalled, he said.
"Increasing direct or charter aircraft flights with state sponsors of terrorism is totally irresponsible," he said in a statement. "Instead of doing business with regimes that undermine America's security … we should be bolstering our democratic allies."
Rubio failed last month to block the expansion of gateway airports with an amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration funding bill.
Miami ranks as the largest host of Cuba flights. Last year, nearly 320,000 travelers flew to Cuba and back through Miami International. The airport averaged more than 10 departing flights daily.
About 30 percent of that business comes from the Tampa Bay area, estimate charter aircraft companies in Miami. But Tampa International will start much smaller.
Three licensed charter operators have said they want to provide service to Cuba from Tampa: Air MarBrisa of Tampa, Island Travel & Tours Ltd. in San Diego and ABC Charter in Miami. The companies must receive landing rights to specific cities from the Cuban government and line up charter airlines to fly the route.
About 150 passengers are expected to travel on each of one or two initial weekly flights, Lopano said. Tickets will likely sell for close to the typical $500 round-trip fare from Miami, he said. "But as we get additional flights and the market expands, you get some price movement downward," he said.
Lopano expects the flights will go to Havana, but other cities are possible. Before the Cuba trade embargo was enacted in 1962, National Airlines flew DC-7s daily from Tampa International.
This is the latest move by the Obama administration to ease travel restrictions to Cuba. In 2009, Obama undid many of the restrictions imposed by the Bush administration, lifting all curbs on family visits and money transfers for Cuban-Americans with family on the island.
Under the new policy they were also allowed to send more types of humanitarian aid to Cuba, from clothing and personal hygiene items to seeds and fishing equipment. The latest move does nothing to affect the original economic embargo.
Steve Huettel an be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8128.