By KELLY YAMANOUCHI | PalmBeachPost.com
AirTran Airways wants to be one of the first airlines to operate scheduled flights into Cuba if restrictions on tourism to the country are eased, said AirTran Chief Executive Robert Fornaro.
“It’s a very pretty country and the curiosity level as well as the ethnic flying back and forth is going to be substantial,” Fornaro said. “I think it’s going to be a very, very strong leisure destination.”
AirTran is based in Orlando, and has its largest hub in Atlanta. It also flies daily in and out of Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood international airports.
“We’d like to be one of the first ones for scheduled flights, and certainly that would include Atlanta and probably other points in Florida as well,” Fornaro said. “I think a lot of airlines are going to have a lot of interest.”
He estimated five or more airlines may pursue flights to Havana but speculated that the number of carriers granted rights may be limited.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines said it’s premature for it to comment or speculate if it would serve Cuba, “based on the fact that we don’t know how any changes would be structured in the future,” according to Delta spokesman Kent Landers.
Interest in the possibility of scheduled commercial airline flights to Cuba heightened after President Obama this month lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ visits to Cuba.
AirTran has operated charter flights from Miami to Havana with tour operators in past years.
Fornaro said he doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of the airport facilities, but he acknowledged potential complications for the tourism market there.
“There’s a couple of things to consider with Cuba: What’s the quality of facilities and the hotels?” Fornaro said. “How much tourism can it take?”
He added that “a lot of development needs to occur.”
On Wednesday, AirTran’s parent, AirTran Holdings Inc., posted a first-quarter profit of $28.7 million despite a 9 percent drop in revenue, compared with a restated year-ago loss of $35.4 million.
The results topped Wall Street expectations, a bright spot for the industry after several major carriers posted hefty losses for the first three months of the year amid a steep decline in demand for air travel.
“Our ability to report a profit today is rooted in the difficult decisions we made last year. AirTran Airways was among the first airlines to react to the changing economic environment and we are among the first to show signs of recovery,” the airline said in a statement.
That gives the low-cost airline ample flexibility to make a play for Cuba flights.
AirTran’s senior vice president of marketing and planning, Kevin Healy, said during the company’s earnings conference call Wednesday that the company is “having discussions going forward and certainly are looking at opportunities that may be there should the rules change” on tourism to Cuba.