TAMPA — Southwest Airlines has been offering direct flights between Havana and Tampa for just 31 days now, and the airline's chief executive says his fingers are crossed that the route will remain open once Donald Trump is sworn into office.
"Those flights have high demand both from the U.S. and from Cuba and obviously we're hopeful that we can continue to operate them," said Gary Kelly, Southwest's chief executive and chairman president. "If the government, for other reasons decides that that's not possible obviously we'll obey the law but we're hoping that's not the case."
Kelly spoke briefly with the Tampa Bay Times following an award ceremony at Tampa International Airport this morning. He added that he hopes that Trump follows through on promises to invest in the infrastructure at U.S. airports, especially as the company looks to expand its international routes.
"Now we've added flights to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean so our orientation right now is south but ultimately we're looking to expand in North America," he said. "We'll add flights to Hawaii one of these days, Canada, Alaska and perhaps as far south as South America."
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Kelly said that the majority of those additional international flights will be routed through a new five-gate international terminal Southwest is building at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport.
"We have a very strong presence here and absolutely we'll be looking at opportunities but we haven't made any commitments at this point to add any further international routes," he said. "Even if we don't add non-stops, because of the connection to Fort Lauderdale we'll be able to add more and more itineraries for our Tampa customers to get to more places."
He complimented Tampa International for its ability to adjust to the region's growing economy and air travel demands. He said it is one of the lowest-cost airports for Southwest in the country.
Kelly is the recipient of the airport's 2016 Tony Jannus Award, which last year was awarded to Allegiant Airlines chief executive Maurice Gallagher. The award is named after the pilot of the world's first scheduled commercial flight, which spanned 21 miles from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 1914. It is the biggest award the airport doles out.
The airline has grown to become one of the largest in the nation under Kelly's leadership and was ranked seventh on the list of most admired companies in the world by Fortune magazine this year, according to a press release. It is Tampa International Airport's largest carrier and has been serving the region for more than 20 years.
Kelly has worked at Southwest for more than 30 years, starting out as a controller and from there moving on to be chief financial officer, vice president of finance and executive vice president before being promoted to CEO and vice chairman in July 2004. He took over the roles of chairman and president in 2008.
In addition to the Tony Jannus Award program, the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society recognizes outstanding local students with an annual essay contest and presents cash awards to deserving university students as part of the Society's Scholarships Awards Program. This year, the winner of the essay contest was St. Petersburg Catholic High School junior Annie Nguyen, who was also honored Friday and received $600 cash and three Southwest airline tickets.
Times staff writer Justine Griffin contributed to this report. Contact Alli Knothe at email@example.com. Follow @KnotheA.