TAMPA — Flying from Tampa to Havana was once so convenient and affordable that Rene Gonzalez would return home from school and quickly grab a suitcase if his parents decided on a whim to visit Cuba's capital.
That was more than a half-century ago, before the Cuban revolution and embargo, before commercial flights between the United States and the island nation ceased.
"Weekends, during the week, whenever my parents wanted to go" said Gonzalez, now 79. "It was no big deal."
Now the two cities are about to move a lot closer to regaining that easy connection.
Starting today, Southwest Airlines will begin selling $59 one-way tickets for daily flights from Tampa International Airport to Havana's José Martí International Airport.
The initial flight takes off Monday, Dec. 12. It will be the first commercial flight in more than five decades between the two cities.
"It is exciting to connect people to the things in their lives that are important to them, and this is important to Tampa," said Adam Decaire, managing director of network planning for Southwest Airlines.
Initially, one 75-minute direct flight will depart from Tampa each day at 6:15 a.m. Flights back to Tampa will depart at either 6:05 p.m. or 11:15 p.m.
There also will be one to two daily connecting flights to Havana from Tampa through Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Beginning Nov. 13, there will be one to two daily connecting flights from Tampa through Fort Lauderdale to Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport in Varadero, Cuba's most popular beach resort city.
The $59 price is good through November 20 and the trip must be made before April 24, 2017.
Traveling to Havana on a charter flight now costs $419 for a round-trip ticket.
Under current U.S. law, American citizens are banned from visiting Cuba for tourism. The trip must fall under one of 12 categories, including educational, professional or family visits.
But given that Tampa's Cuban American population is the third largest in the United States, Southwest executives do not feel the restrictions will limit the market.
"There is still a sizable demographic (that) still has adequate reasons for travel to Cuba," said Evan Berg, manager of international planning at Southwest.
So far this year, 80,200 passengers have traveled to and from Cuba on charter flights through Tampa International Airport, according to airport officials. That's nearly 9,000 more than in all of 2015 and almost twice as many as in 2012, the first full year of charter service to Cuba.
The future of the five weekly charter flights now flying from Tampa and Havana is unknown.
Commercial airlines are expected to be more popular because tickets are cheaper, more easily refundable and transferable and can be purchased online and with frequent flier miles.
The flights result from an arrangement signed in February by the U.S. and Cuban governments to restart commercial airline service in this new era of normalizing relations.
"This was something really important to this region," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who lobbied Southwest executives to fly to Havana out of TIA.
Kriseman thinks the flights will support existing exchanges in the arts, sports, environmental research and education while creating new ones.
Not everyone is excited.
Evelio Otero, a retired Air Force colonel who served at U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, is among those worried that terrorists can enter the United States through Cuba, where he believes passengers are not properly vetted.
"If the U.S. requires certain security airport standards from everywhere airlines fly to and from, Cuba cannot be an exception," he said.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has introduced legislation to stop flights to Cuba until a study is completed regarding security measures at its airports.
In a statement, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said due diligence has been done.
"TSA is confident that all commercial flights from points of origin in Cuba to the United States meet international standards and additional security measures that are required by the United States government."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.