Castor pushes for direct flights from Tampa to Cuba

A sharp increase in travel to Cuba in recent months is prompting local politicians and airport officials to press the Obama administration to allow direct flights between the communist-ruled island and Tampa.

Currently, only Miami, New York and Los Angeles are authorized to handle direct flights. Several cities — including Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston and Key West — have expressed interest lately.

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, moved quickly in April to add Tampa to the list after President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on travel by Cuban-Americans to the island.

In a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Castor predicted monthly visits to Cuba would triple from 10,000 to 30,000.

This "will create a need for a substantial increase in the number of direct air charter flights from the U.S. to Cuba," she wrote.

So far the increase has not been as large as Castor forecast, but some travel companies have reported a 100 percent to 150 percent rise.

"It's been tremendous," said Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charter, which operates several flights a week from Miami to Cuba. Garcia likes the idea of opening the Tampa route.

Castor argues it makes more sense for those living in western Florida to be able to fly direct, rather than have the added expense of going to Miami.

"Let's not just have a gesture, let's make it meaningful," she said in a recent phone interview. "If you are going to lift those travel restrictions for families, then make it easy for those families to follow through and visit their loved ones."

But some experts wonder if Tampa Bay can generate enough passenger traffic to Cuba to make it profitable for charter companies to establish operations there. The Cuban community in Tampa dates to an earlier period than Miami's, and family ties to the island are weaker.

"I don't think there is a big enough Cuba community there," said Tessie Aral, president of Miami-based ABC Charters, one of eight Miami charter companies licensed to sell flights to several destinations in Cuba.

"It would make a lot of sense to fly to Cuba out of Tampa, not just for Tampa Bay, but for North and Central Florida as well," said Henry Mendoza, president of Agencia 12 y 23, one of four Tampa area travel companies handling travel to Cuba.

"We are moving about 400 people a month," he added, up about 20 percent from last year.

But he questioned local government support in Tampa, compared to well-financed lobbying efforts by Houston and New Orleans.

Tampa airport officials strongly back the idea.

"Charter companies have contacted us and said they would like to do it," said Louis Miller, director of Tampa International Airport.

Opening a charter route now might give Tampa an advantage when all Americans are allowed to travel to the island, he added. "There may be changes on travel for Americans in the near future and we'd like to have a leg up."

Legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress earlier this year to scrap all travel restrictions to Cuba, and could be voted on this fall. Such a move could boost annual visits to Cuba to 1 million from the current 200,000 mark.

Castor said her interest in the issue stems from constituent requests to visit sick or dying relatives during the Bush administration when Cuban-Americans were permitted only one visit every three years.

When Obama was elected, Castor was among those encouraging him to ease restrictions on travel and remittances. Besides writing to the Treasury Department, she also hand-delivered a briefing package to Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

"I told him, 'Rahm, this is something that is not on the big-issue radar screen, but it matters in the lives of Cuban-American families, and Florida families.' "

She also buttonholed Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on the issue during a visit to Tampa earlier this month.

Fast action is unlikely, analysts say. At least five government agencies have a say in the matter.

"Last I heard, they are not looking at a broad expansion, but maybe just a couple of places," said Castor. "We hope to be one of them."

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

The bay area's Cuban population

There are 66,963 Cuban-Americans in the Tampa Bay area, making it the fifth-largest Cuban expatriate population in the country. That number goes up to 110,000 if Orlando, Kissimmee, Lakeland, Jacksonville, Sarasota and Bradenton are added. Miami and New Jersey are the largest Cuban-American communities.

Flights to Cuba from the United States carried about 85,000 people last year, the majority being Cuban Americans visiting relatives. The number is expected to double this year, and could hit 200,000, charter companies say. There were 200,859 U.S. visitors to Cuba in 2003, the year before President George W. Bush imposed travel restrictions to the island.

Source: U.S. Census

Castor pushes for direct flights from Tampa to Cuba 08/20/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 5:03pm]

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