TAMPA — The first nonstop flights between Tampa and Cuba in a half-century will start in two months.
Miami-based ABC Charters announced Wednesday that it received authority from the Cuban government to fly from Tampa International Airport to Havana. The company will start in September with one weekly round trip and add a second in October, said president Tessie Aral at an airport news conference.
Round-trip fares will be in the range of $399 to $459, she said. American Airlines will operate the flights using Boeing 737-800 jets with 145 seats.
"I will be so thrilled to unify families with their families in Cuba,'' Aral said.
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 will primarily benefit from the new flights.
For years, Cuban-Americans in Central Florida have had to drive or fly to Miami, which, along with New York and Los Angeles, was one of only three federally approved gateways for Cuba flights until March.
"This is the last piece of the puzzle,'' said U.S. Rep Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who worked for years to make Tampa International a gateway for Cuba flights. "For too long families have had to travel to Miami in order to get to Cuba. They have had to spend extra money for hotel rooms and plane tickets . . . making an already expensive journey even more cumbersome.''
The Obama administration announced a rules change in January to let more U.S. airports qualify for nonstop flights to Cuba. In March, Tampa International was among eight airports named as new gateways.
The changes also loosened travel restrictions by allowing cultural, educational and religious groups to sponsor trips without getting permission for every trip. General-purpose tourist visits remain a violation of U.S. law.
The new rules reignited fights over the U.S. relationship with Cuba, with South Florida members of Congress leading the charge.
Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera introduced amendments that would return Cuba travel policy to rules set by the Bush administration: Cuban-Americans could visit family members no more than once every three years and remittances to families would be limited to $1,200 per year.
Tampa International officials were almost giddy over landing a new route to its thin roster of international nonstop flights. The last Tampa-Havana service was about a half century ago, before the Cuba trade embargo was enacted in 1962.
"This is a monumental and historic day,'' said airport CEO Joe Lopano. "It is a great day for our Cuban American community.
Information from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald was used in this report. Contact Steve Huettel at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.