BY INA PAIVA CORDLE | Miami Herald
Air charter operators offering flights to Cuba said Monday that they are ready and willing to ramp up service if passenger demand rises—and they expect it will.
With President Obama’s lifting of travel restrictions, a Cuban American can now take a 45-minute flight to visit relatives in Cuba at any time for about $500 per round trip.
From Miami, seven charter companies currently fly to Cuba. All go to Havana, and some also fly to Camaguey, Holguin, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. In total, they fly more than 35 flights a week from Miami. Carriers also fly from New York.
Tom Cooper, president of Gulfstream Air Charter, which flies daily from Miami to Havana, said traffic already grew by 20 percent when the rules changed in March allowing Cuban Americans to fly once a year to visit relatives, rather than once every three years.
He expects passengers now may want to make more frequent, if shorter, trips.
‘‘It’s possible that travel habits will change, and instead of going down once a year for two weeks, it could be once a month, overnight, or for the weekend,’’ Cooper said. ``I anticipate a significant jump in business. How much, I don’t know.’‘
The U.S. government currently permits only charter flights from the United States to Cuba. But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama had directed the State, Commerce and Treasury departments to draft a plan for lifting travel restrictions for Cuban Americans and implied that could include a look at possible direct commercial flights from the United States to Cuba.
In the immediate future, it is the charter flights that most likely will increase, said Daniel Restrepo, senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the White House National Security Council. ‘‘Those, in all likelihood, will have to be expanded if there is increased demand,’’ Restrepo said at a White House briefing Monday.
Gulfstream, for example, plans to lease a Boeing 737-800 from charter airline Miami Air to meet increased demand, Cooper said. The plane can hold 172 passengers.
‘‘We will accommodate the market readily,’’ he said. ``It won’t be a one-month or two-month delay. It will be instantaneous.’‘
Other charter companies say they are also prepared to boost service. ‘‘As the demand increases, we will increase the number of flights,’’ said Richard Reposa, chief financial officer of C&T Charters. ``We have the aircraft available to do that.’‘
C&T operates with aircraft from Aerosur, a Bolivian carrier. The charter company already planned to augment its schedule this summer, adding more flights to Havana, Reposa said.
Similarly, ABC Charters already planned to increase its capacity by switching from a Boeing 737 to a Boeing 767, which can carry 228 passengers and adds about 70 seats per flight, said Tessie Aral, company president.
It also plans to add another flight to Havana and is currently in negotiations for the aircraft.
Aral predicts an uptick in travel.
``You’re going to see people traveling a little more freely, because they won’t think, `If I go now, I won’t be able to go again.’‘’
Cuba Travel Services is also looking to add capacity. It hopes to move from an American Eagle 62-seat aircraft to a larger MD-87 or MD-83 aircraft that seats 150, said Michael Zuccato, general manager of the Long Beach, Calif.-based company, which has an office in Hialeah.
The company will likely add more frequencies to Havana, beginning in mid-June or early July, Zuccato said.
Cuba Travel Services is also considering operating from Los Angeles to Cuba, possibly this summer, reinstating flights it discontinued in 2004 when the Bush administration tightened restrictions on flights.
No other operator currently flies from Los Angeles, and passengers from the West Coast now tend to fly from Tijuana, Mexico, Zuccato said.
‘‘Our phone is ringing off the hook,’’ he said. ``We’re pretty confident it’s going to be a pretty big year for Cuban Americans to go back to see family this summer and all year-round.’‘
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