Thursday, November 23, 2017
Politics

Top Cuba charter follows others out of market as Tampa commercial flight debuts

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Tessie Aral knew for months it was happening, yet she wept tears of both joy and sadness Dec. 12 when Southwest Airlines launched its daily service from Tampa to Havana.

Tears of joy because this first commercial flight in over 50 years connecting Tampa and Cuba means relations between her birth country and adopted homeland of the United States are continuing to improve.

Tears of sadness because it means her work bringing the two nations together was ending.

In 2011, Aral's ABC Charters was the first charter flight company to receive permission to fly from Tampa to Cuba, and the second to actually launch the flights — two days after competitor Xael Travel. ABC Charters navigated the route for longer than any other carrier.

The flights ended Nov. 29, in part because Aral leased planes from American Airlines and JetBlue and they provide service themselves now that commercial flights to Cuba have resumed. American flies from Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami, and JetBlue from New York, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.

Aral was unable to secure planes elsewhere that were up to her standards.

"It's sad but for the best," said Aral, who also stopped her Miami to Cuba charter flights. "I've always been focused on doing what was right for Cuba and the U.S. and not what would give me monetary change."

This leaves one charter company flying from Tampa to Cuba — Havana Air, with flights every Wednesday and Saturday on a 174-seat plane leased from Eastern Air Lines.

Xael left the Tampa market in 2013 but remains in Miami. Cuba Travel Services stopped flying to Cuba in August.

Island Travel & Tours had been offering flights but callers to its Tampa office are told the service has been grounded until Cuba renews landing rights. Island Travel president Bill Hauf could not be reached for comment.

Frank Reno, president of Tampa-based Cuba Executive Travel, who organizes tours of the island, called these charter flights "catalysts for where we are today for providing a service when the commercial airlines could not."

Americans who flew these charters often returned home with their minds changed, from favoring continued isolation of Cuba as U.S. policy to opening the doors, Reno said.

Added Aral, "We also spent a lot of time in D.C. talking about the right to travel to Cuba. Obama listened to us."

It is illegal for Americans to visit Cuba strictly for tourism, but President Barack Obama has made it easier to travel there since announcing in December 2014 that the nations would normalize relations.

Americans are allowed to visit Cuba under U.S. law so long as they travel under one of 12 categories, including medical research or — the box most often checked — to learn more about the island's people, culture and history.

It is no coincidence, Aral said, that U.S. travel to Cuba has risen since 2014.

According to the Cuban government, 90,000 Americans visited the island nation that year. Through the first half of 2016 alone, the total was 137,000.

These numbers, Aral said, are why commercial airlines wanted to get into the Cuba market.

Still, Mark Elias, president of Havana Air, said his charter company plans on remaining in Tampa and can compete with the commercial service.

Because there was no aviation agreement between the nations, Cuba could charge U.S. charters landing fees as high as $24,000 per flight rather than the international rate of around $400.

Under a signed arrangement, once commercial flights to Cuba began, fees charged for U.S. planes must be in line with the rate the rest of the world pays, allowing Havana Air to drop its prices now from over $400 to $256 round trip.

After offering an introductory price of $149 round trip to Cuba, Southwest is now selling tickets starting at $205.

Elias said that unlike commercial airlines, his company is a "one-stop shop" for going to Cuba that can assist with booking tours.

As for ABC, it will become a travel agency specializing in Cuba.

"I feel like when my daughter went to college," Aral said. "I cried because she was gone, but then I realized it was time for her to grow. It was for the best."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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