TAMPA — On the same day that severe winter weather canceled and delayed flights to and from the Northeast and Midwest, Tampa International Airport officials announced their 11th weekly flight to Cuba amid clear skies and 80-degree temperatures.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor joined airport CEO Joe Lopano in a news conference to announce the new flight, a weekly charter to Havana. The flight, they said, represents an important milestone for the Tampa Bay community and the airport, which began offering direct flights to Cuba two years ago.
"This is a godsend for the families across this community," Castor said. "Families used to have to travel to Miami at great cost, at great inconvenience, to travel to see their loved ones. Now it's as easy as going from West Tampa, a mile away, right here to the best airport in the country."
Since the airport began offering nonstop flights to Cuba in 2011, about 92,000 passengers have made use of the service, Lopano said. He noted the economic impact the flights have had on the area and the airport itself, saying international passenger traffic has increased by 24 percent.
"We're very focused on growing our international business," he said. "Our No. 1 export is tourism. Every time we bring in more tourists, it means more jobs and more tourists leaving money in the community."
The airport's 11 flights move passengers between three different Cuban cities — Havana, Santa Clara and Holguin. While the passenger numbers represent a small portion of the millions who pass through the airport each year, the rare nature of the route still makes it an important feather in the airport's cap.
Before 2011, only Miami, New York and Los Angeles offered direct flights. But that year, Tampa was one of eight cities that were part of an expansion. Since then, it has become the second busiest U.S. travel hub to Cuba behind Miami.
"This also highlights the fact that we've got to take another step in modernizing the relationship between the United States and Cuba," Castor said. "We have got to move on from this Cold War policy that does not encourage greater engagement and dialogue. It is time now."
Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.