Tampa-Cuba flights doing well as other cities cut back service to the island

The first commercial flight from Tampa to Cuba in more than five decades left Tampa International Airport for Havana on Dec. 12. [PAUL GUZZO | Times]
The first commercial flight from Tampa to Cuba in more than five decades left Tampa International Airport for Havana on Dec. 12. [PAUL GUZZO | Times]
Published Feb. 25, 2017

TAMPA — When word came that commercial flights between the United States and Cuba would resume after more than five decades, major airlines jumped into the competition for routes.

Cuba, once forbidden fruit, was expected to see a rush of U.S. travelers.

Now, just six months later, some airlines are scaling back because demand is less than expected — except in Tampa.

Total passengers using Tampa International Airport to fly to and from Cuba is growing to the point that more flights may be added.

"Tampa is a strong market," said Mark Elias, president of charter operator Havana Air, who hopes to receive landing rights in Santa Clara from the Cuban government within the next month. "We're happy to be a part of it."

Southwest Airlines, which began offering daily direct commercial flights connecting Havana and Tampa on Dec. 12, echoed that sentiment.

"Our nonstop service from Tampa Bay to Cuba is performing in-line with our expectation," spokesman Brad Hawkins said in an email. "There were many days in December when an empty seat was hard to come by."

Passengers traveling to and from Havana through Tampa totalled 7,923 in December, up from 6,693 in December 2015 when only charter flights were available, according to the airport.

In January 2017, the first full month of the commercial service, the number rose again to 8,731 — nearly 32 percent above the same month a year before.

The United States and Cuban governments negotiated 110 daily commercials flights connecting the nations — 20 a day to Havana, with nine other cities on the island each receiving 10 a day.

The secondary cities received fewer bids than expected but a dozen U.S. airlines applied for nearly 60 flights a day to Havana from 20 American cities.

Ultimately, eight airlines and 10 airports split the Havana routes. Commercial service to the nine secondary Cuban cities began in August. The first Havana flight took off in November from Miami and Tampa's launched a month later.

American Airlines has already dropped one of its two daily flights between Miami and the Cuban cities of Varadero, Santa Clara and Holguín.

Silver Airlines, serving all nine of the secondary Cuban cities from Fort Lauderdale, reduced its number of flights to six of these destinations.

JetBlue has switched to smaller planes, with 50 fewer seats, to serve Havana out of Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and New York. It did the same for flights to Camagüey, Holguín and Santa Clara from Fort Lauderdale.

These airlines said they're merely adjusting to demand, "especially routes that are new to the network," JetBlue told the Tampa Bay Times.

So why is Tampa bucking the trend?

"Tampa is the sweet spot," said George Hamlin of Virginia-based Hamlin Transportation Consulting. "It has a core of people of Cuban ancestry — the third largest in the country — but has not overdone it with flights."

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Only eight Tampa-Cuba routes were added from January 2016 to January 2017 and the planes being used are around the same size as before.

South Florida, on the other hand, where the largest Cuban-American population lives, is scaling back on the new flights despite a passenger increase.

Total Cuba passengers through Miami International Airport rose from around 99,000 each in December 2015 and January 2016 to around 131,000 and 128,000 during those two months a year later, the airport said.

But with the added commercial flights, seat totals for South Florida more than doubled year over year, said Sandy Rederer, a commercial aviation consultant based in Sarasota.

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.