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Tampa charter dropping Cuba flights as commercial service nears

There was much fanfare in September 2011 when the first nonstop flight to Cuba in nearly 50 years took off from Tampa International Airport. Now, these charter flights are threatened with the coming of cheaper scheduled flights by a commercial airline. [Times file]
Published Aug. 9, 2016

TAMPA — The first commercial flights from Tampa to Havana in more than 50 years begin in late October at the earliest but they're already muscling out at least one local charter company.

Cuba Travel Services will cease operations from Tampa and the future of the two other local charter companies — Island Travel & Tours and ABC Charters — remains unclear.

"We don't believe charter companies will be able to compete with the major carriers," said Michael Zuccato, general manager at Cuba Travel Services. "We will stop operating charters from Tampa on a scheduled basis in early September. We're still working on an exact date."

Bill Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours, could not be reached for comment. Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, said she has no plans to leave the Tampa market but acknowledges that her company's future is up in the air after Oct. 31.

The reason: The Cuban government grants landing rights to charters in six-month increments and issues authorization three months in advance, Aral said. Flights for the cycle starting in November should have been authorized by the first of August but they were not, Aral said.

She does not see this as a sign that Cuba is cutting off charters. Rather, she believes the Cuban government still is figuring out how to handle the additional traffic from commercial flights — 110 a day to 10 destinations.

"They just need more time," Aral said. "I'm not worried."

From the start of the travel and trade embargo against Cuba more than five decades ago through earlier this year, the U.S. government forbade commercial airlines from flying there. Charter flights filled the void.

When President Obama eased travel restrictions on Cuba in 2011, American interest in visiting the island nation soared. That year, Tampa International Airport was granted permission to offer charter flights to Cuba.

In 2012, more than 41,000 passengers flew from Tampa to Cuba.

The number of passengers increased again after December 2014 when Obama announced diplomatic relations with the Communist government would be restored. More than 71,000 passengers flew from Tampa to Cuba in 2015.

The number of charter flights from the Tampa airport also increased from two each week in 2011 to nine in peak season.

The number will drop to seven with the lost of the two weekly flights by Cuba Travel Services.

"It comes down to competition," said Frank Reno, president of Tampa-based Cuba Executive Travel, who organizes tour group trips to Cuba.

"From the day we learned the big carriers would service Cuba, the question was whether the charters could keep up from a pure economic standpoint and if enough people want to go to Cuba that both are needed," Reno said. "If the answer to both is no, I think the charters unfortunately will be gone."

In June, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it approved commercial flights to nine Cuban cities — Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Varadero, Santa Clara and Santiago.

Tampa did not receive any of those.

Then in July, Tampa was among 10 cities awarded Havana flights by the Transportation Department. Southwest Airlines will provide a daily flight to Cuba's capital city.

Charter flight tickets from Tampa to Havana cost more than $400.

These charters typically use a Boeing 737-800 for the trip and pay landing fees of up to $24,000 per flight. The international rate is only around $400 for the same plane.

Once commercial service to Cuba begin, all flights are expected to be charged the cheaper standard fee, meaning charters will be able to drop their prices.

But ultimately, said Zuccato with Cuba Travel Services, that won't matter.

"The large carriers are competing for a limited number of passengers so will continue to bring their prices down," he said. "I can't go as low as they will."

Commercial-flight ticket prices to Havana have not yet been announced. In one indicator, Miami-based Havana Consulting Group reported recently that commercial airlines flying out of south Florida could enter the Havana market at ticket prices of $150 to $250.

Airline tickets to the other Cuban cities will be even cheaper. JetBlue, for instance, says it will initially operate flights between Fort Lauderdale and Santa Clara, Camagüey and Holguín for as little as $99.

Commercial flights are also expected to be more popular than charters because tickets will be available online and frequent flyer miles can be used in the purchase. Also, baggage is not transferred from connecting flights through charter services.

Zuccato predicts commercial service from Tampa to Havana will begin by the end of October or early November. He could have stayed in the local market until then, he said, but this is typically the slow season for travel to Cuba so he decided to bow out now.

Cuba Travel Service cut its flights from Los Angeles to Havana at the end of July.

The company will continue to fly charters from New York and Miami to Havana at least until commercial service begins, Zuccato said. It could continue depending on demand.

He will scale back on flights from Miami and New York to Cuba's secondary cities starting in September.

Cuba Travel Services is transitioning from a fulltime charter operator by helping commercial airline passengers with visas to Cuba. The company will also operate as a Cuba tour company, Zuccato said, and if a tour group wants to book a personal charter flight, he will still provide that service.

ABC's Aral said that if scheduled charter flights to Cuba are not needed, she will remain in the market in other ways — booking tours, ground transportation, hotels and meals.

"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," she said with a laugh. "We'll just go with the flow and make the needed business adjustments."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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