Tampa could soon add another commercial flight to Havana.
Southwest Airlines, which has provided one daily flight between Tampa International Airport and Havana's Jose Marti International Airport since December 2016, is among three commercial airlines competing for an additional Saturday route to Cuba's capital city.
The other two are JetBlue Airways, which would fly the Saturday route to Havana via Fort Lauderdale, and American Airlines, which would do so from Miami.
The Department of Transportation, which will decide which airline gets this route, made the announcement on July 6.
According to a memorandum of understanding between the United States and Cuba, there can be no more than 20 daily commercial flights from this country to Havana. Airlines can only pick up new routes if an allocated flight is dropped.
The route soon to be available currently belongs to Delta Air Lines and flies on Saturdays out of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Delta will drop that service on Sept. 1.
The DOT has not said when the decision will be made. But Sandy Rederer, a commercial aviation consultant based in Sarasota, expects the DOT wants the flight to takeoff soon after Delta ceases its JFK to Havana route.
The DOT stated, "The principal objective in this proceeding will be to maximize public benefits."
In its application, Southwest said the Tampa area is home to more than 123,500 residents of Cuban descent and that Tampa and Havana have strong family, business and educational ties.
In its answer to JetBlue's application filed with the DOT, Southwest then argued that an additional Tampa flight is the only one that will increase Havana service from "a gateway outside of South Florida, thus benefitting consumers with a geographical choice of gateways."
On average, Southwest said, its 175-seat Tampa to Havana flights carry 126 passengers, whereas JetBlue carries 95 passengers between Fort Lauderdale and Havana on aircrafts that average 134 seats.
"Clearly there is a greater demand" for an additional Tampa to Havana flight on Saturdays, Southwest wrote.
According to the Tampa airport's most recent statistics, 84,763 passengers flew between Tampa and Havana through May of this fiscal year. That's up from 63,635 during the same period in 2017, an increase of 33 percent. Those numbers also include charter flights whose frequencies change by the season.
"Having the country's third largest Cuban American population in the Tampa Bay area, we are not surprised by the success of TPA's flights to the island nation," airport spokesperson Emily Nipps wrote in an email.
That the Tampa area is a lesser-served Cuba commercial flight market could make it the frontrunner, said consultant Rederer.
The bulk of the United States to Havana commercial flights are already out of the South Florida area.
There are seven such daily flights out of Miami, according to the DOT. And six days a week, half a dozen fly from Fort Lauderdale to Havana with four doing so on Saturdays. Tampa has just the one commercial flight a day provided by Southwest.
"If Southwest gets one extra flight a week, it could increase capacity by 10 percent," consultant Rederer said. "If one a week gets added to Miami, you'd get maybe a 3 percent increase."
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.