Tampa airport resuming flights to Cuba, Montreal, Panama City

The new routes arrive as Tampa International Airport reopens some shops and offers touchless delivery at the gate.
Inside the first commercial flight on Southwest Airlines in five decades from Tampa International Airport to Havana, Cuba in December 2016. Flights on Southwest to Havana are expected to resume on Sunday. [PAUL GUZZO | Times]
Inside the first commercial flight on Southwest Airlines in five decades from Tampa International Airport to Havana, Cuba in December 2016. Flights on Southwest to Havana are expected to resume on Sunday. [PAUL GUZZO | Times]
Published Dec. 3, 2020|Updated Dec. 3, 2020

Nassau, Toronto and Cancun are happening. Havana, Montreal and Panama City are up next.

Over the next month or so, Tampa International Airport plans to double its international flight offerings, giving Floridian travelers their most destination options outside America since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Starting Sunday, Southwest Airlines will relaunch direct flights to Havana, Cuba. Air Canada is scheduled to resume flights to Montreal on Dec. 18. And Copa Airlines will resume flights to Panama City, Panama on Jan. 8.

Beyond that, the airport has tentative return dates listed between January and March for cities such as Frankfurt, London and Zürich. (Most travelers from Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom still must quarantine for 14 days before entering the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

But in the short term, the new flights will give the airport its biggest international boost since U.S. borders locked down in March.

Silver Airways resumed flights from Tampa to Nassau, Bahamas, in July; while Air Canada re-launched flights to Toronto on Oct. 10. The airport saw 1,030 international passengers in October, largely as a result of the Toronto flights.

“Thank you very much, Air Canada, for keeping us alive,” Chris Minner, the airport’s executive vice president of marketing and communications, said Thursday at a board meeting of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

Those returning passengers were prescreened for re-entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in the Bahamas and Canada before boarding, said airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps. Customs officials started screening international travelers in Tampa on Nov. 19, when JetBlue resumed flights to Cancun, Mexico.

Last week, travel industry website listed that Tampa-Cancun flight as its “Route of the Week,” highlighting the hub’s return to international travel.

“The airline network planners around the world are the ones that actually pay attention to this,” Minner said. “It’s an indication to them of the lengths that we go to as a market to support their new nonstop flights.”

The resumption of international travel comes at a time when more and more airport services that shut down during the pandemic have begun to restart. The main terminal’s Hard Rock Cafe has re-opened, and the airport resumed its remote bag check service on Nov. 23, processing 500 bags per day.

At the outset of the pandemic, all but 18 of the airport’s 70 concessions locations shut down, leading to furloughs or layoffs of at least 900 workers. Today, 41 locations have reopened, although some are operating with limited hours and a smaller menu and staff, said John Tiliacos, the airport’s executive vice president of operations and customer service.

This month, the airport will expand its trial of Grab, a touchless delivery service for restaurants and some retail stores, so travelers can have products delivered while they wait at the gate.

“We’re eager to get this started, and it’ll be phased in over several months,” Tiliacos said.

Overall, passenger traffic through the airport was 14 percent higher than forecast in October, and an estimated 8 percent higher in November.

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The airport served 391,646 passengers over the 10 day Thanksgiving holiday period. That’s down 49 percent from the same week last year. But it also included around 48,000 passengers who flew on Nov. 29, the airport’s busiest day since the pandemic began in March.

“What a year, said Aviation Authority board chairman Gary Harrod. “We found out the things that we can’t control, like people getting on planes, but what we can control, we’ve done great.”