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DOT proposes daily Tampa to Havana flights by Southwest Airlines

Tampa has emerged a likely winner in the Havana flight sweepstakes.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said Thursday it wants Tampa to be one of the cities Southwest Airlines connects to the Cuban capital.

Flights could begin by the fall, and experts predict a drastic drop in fares to Havana.

"This is such good news," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. "The flights will open up so many opportunities for our families, churches and nonprofits."

Some view the commercial flights as key in establishing the Tampa Bay area as a business and cultural gateway to Cuba.

"This is a major proof point of the international potential of our city," said Joe Lopano, CEO of Tampa International Airport.

RELATED: Tourism ban withers as commercial flights to Cuba resume

Others see the flights as a portal to the past.

At the West Tampa Sandwich Shop on Thursday, the news of the proposed Tampa route was greeted with a mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm.

Ada Mijares Gregg, a Pinellas real estate agent, said she left Cuba as a child in 1960 and has never been back, but she would like to see her old school.

"Everyone is curious and wants to see what is happening over there," she said.

Dario Diaz, a West Tampa attorney who was critical of former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco for his 2002 visit to Cuba, now feels the embargo has failed.

"It's forbidden fruit," he said. "People want to see what has been closed to them for the last 60 years."

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

Southwest isn't yet saying how much a trip to the island will cost people flying out of Tampa.

However, in one indicator, Miami-based Havana Consulting Group reported recently that commercial airlines flying out of south Florida could enter the Havana market with tickets running $150 to $250.

One charter company flying from Tampa, ABC Charters, said a round trip charter flight to Havana now costs $469.

At this stage, the DOT calls its selections tentative. But it is "highly unlikely" the Tampa decision will change, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with the San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research.

A public comment period ends July 29. The DOT expects to make the final calls later this summer.

RELATED: West Tampa Sandwich Shop weighs in on flight to Havana

A dozen U.S. airlines applied for nearly 60 flights a day to Havana from 20 American cities. That well exceeded the 20 total daily flights agreed upon by the U.S. and Cuban governments earlier this year.

The other DOT selections are Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines.

And the other cities that would be connected to Havana are Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York City and Orlando.

In June, the DOT approved flights to the Cuban cities of Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Varadero, Santa Clara and Santiago.

Tampa International Airport did not receive any of those flights. No airlines listed it as a preference. Nor was Tampa International the facility of choice to service Havana.

Only two major airlines named Tampa at all.

JetBlue listed it sixth.

In Southwest's application, Fort Lauderdale took up the first six spots. Tampa was No. 7 and 8.

Southwest also said it preferred to include Tampa only if the airline was approved for at least two daily flights from Fort Lauderdale, which it was.

Still, the decision ultimately rests with DOT, which in a statement said selections are based, in part, on achieving the maximum public benefit.

Almost 170,000 people of Cuban ancestry live within two-hour drive of the Tampa airport. And nearly 270,000 passengers have flown from TIA to Cuba since the two were connected with charter flights in 2011, according to airport officials.

"Southwest is a strong airline that has a lot of potential flow traffic through Tampa, which is a city with a history of success in the Cuba market," said Sandy Rederer, a commercial aviation consultant based in Sarasota.

In March, Tampa International pushed for leaders from all corners of the Tampa Bay area to send letters to the DOT reminding the agency of Tampa's century-old link to Havana and all the work that this community has done with Cuba since relations were normalized in December 2014.

Among those local connections: a partnership between Tampa's Florida Aquarium and Havana's National Aquarium on coral reef research. Also, Gasparilla Music Festival and Gasparilla International Film Festival import Cuban talent, and more cultural exchanges are in the works.

"It's one thing if you're the DOT and get a letter from an airport director," Lopano said. "It's another thing to get a letter from the airport director and then from all the leaders of this community that tells you what a great place this is and how committed we are."

The Cuban government's affinity for Tampa may have helped, said Albert A. Fox, who has worked to improve relations through his Alliance For Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.

"Tampa has a modern history with Cuba dating back to Mayor Dick Greco," said Fox, who put together Greco's meeting with Fidel Castro in 2002.

Elected officials from both sides of the bay such as Tampa City Councilwoman Yvonne Capin and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman have been actively lobbying to host the first Cuban consulate in the United States in more than 50 years.

The commercial flights could help the area land it.

Regardless, Kriseman may be planning his third trip.

"I am appreciative of all the people who helped make this possible and to Southwest Airlines," he said. "I look forward to hopping on a flight soon."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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