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Tampa's charter flights to Cuba could suffer from new commercial flights

The daily Southwest flight from Tampa to Havana will create new competition for a handful of charter operators who have offered flights to and from Cuba and Tampa for years.

Since charter services began offering flights in 2011, nearly 270,000 passengers have flown between Tampa and Cuba. The airport has seen double-digit growth rates in the number of passengers using TIA to get to Cuba since then. That includes a 16 percent spike in travelers last year.

"To be honest, I don't know how these new flights are going to affect my business," said Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, one of three charter companies that offer flights to Cuba from Tampa. "There will be a lot of commercial flights now, more than there is demand I think because of the cap on tourism. But I think it will all depend on what pricing Southwest puts out there. We'll have to wait and see."

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Commercial flights are 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. And if a charter is delayed and passengers miss a connecting flight, they would not get a refund or other compensation.

In 2012, 41,500 passengers flew to Cuba from Tampa after just one year of service. That number jumped to 71,400 travelers in 2015. Among the charter offerings out of Tampa airport, flights to airports in Cuba have gone from two to nine in peak season.

ABC Charters offers flights on contracted JetBlue and American planes four times a week in Tampa to and from destinations like Havana and Santa Clara, and sometimes Holguin in high seasonal periods like the winter and the summer. Aral's Miami-based company also offers flights to Cuba from Miami.

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U.S. charter flights pay Cuba landing fees of $73 to $148 per passenger today, based on age and whether they are traveling as individuals or in a tour group. But those prices are likely to decline.

Charter flights from the United States currently pay much higher landing fees than those that originate elsewhere. For instance, a U.S. charter flight on a 162-seat Boeing 737-800 might pay fees of up to $24,000. The same plane arriving from another country might pay under $400.

In February, the U.S. and Cuban governments signed a non-binding aviation arrangement that allows U.S.-based commercial flights to land and sets certain guidelines — including one prohibiting discriminatory fees.

Aral said that JetBlue or the airports in Cuba have not canceled her flights or contracts since the tentative announcement about commercial Cuba flights from the U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday.

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Ken Qualls, CEO of Flight Management Solutions in Boca Raton, an aviation consulting firm, sees room for growth in commercial and charter flights.

"This won't kill their business but it will change it," he said. "There is a need for a niche service that offers flights on your schedule and offers tours and other perks."

Qualls also anticipates growth for corporate and private plane charter business as more U.S.-based businesses look to expand relationships there.

In addition to flights, ABC Charters offers tour packages and hotel bookings. Aral said a lot of her business comes from group travel. The other two companies offering charter flights out of Tampa are Cuba Travel Services and Island Travel & Tours Ltd

Staff writer Paul Guzzo contributed to this report.

Contact Justine Griffin at or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.