By Richard N. Velotta | Las Vegas Sun
People who know anything about Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air know it is an airline that marches to a different beat.
So why should anybody be surprised that Allegiant’s newest destinations will be places where few Americans have ever been?
Allegiant Travel, the parent company of the airline that specializes in delivering people from small communities to resort cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Florida cities such as Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, recently won a contract to supply charter flights from Miami to four cities in Cuba. Flights will begin in June.
Allegiant’s charter business is a small but important piece of the company’s revenue picture. Although Allegiant is an airline that brings people here from places such as Bismarck, N.D., a couple of times a week, the company’s charter operation in the first quarter supplied 7 percent of its revenue.
The airline has had charter agreements with companies such as Harrah’s Entertainment, shuttling gamblers to Reno, Laughlin and Biloxi, Miss.; and the U.S. Forest Service, taking firefighters to the big blazes we see on television; and, in college football and basketball seasons, players and boosters to out-of-town games.
But this gig is a little different.
The new contract is part of a program with the Treasury Department’s foreign assets control office.
Although Cuba is less than 100 miles from U.S. soil, few Americans have spent any time there because of travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. Over the years, policies have changed dramatically depending on the shifting relationship this country has had with Cuban leaders.
In the 1960s when Americans were being kept awake at night during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy imposed an embargo on all trade with Cuba, including travel, using his authority under the Trading with the Enemy Act. Only a few people received licenses to travel to Cuba on a case-by-case basis by the State Department.
It wasn’t until 1977 that President Jimmy Carter lifted all travel restrictions and administrators drafted new regulations. Charter flights from Miami International Airport ensued later that year.
But in 1982 President Ronald Reagan limited travel-related transactions and during his administration the rules were tightened again. President George H.W. Bush led efforts to expand the list of persons allowed to travel to the island. In addition to travel for public performances, exhibitions and “humanitarian reasons,” Bush policies allowed travel for educational reasons, religious activities and for activities of recognized human rights organizations.
Events that occurred during President Bill Clinton’s administration tightened, then relaxed travel policies twice.
In 1994 Clinton’s tightening of restrictions led to thousands of Cuban rafters crossing the Florida Straits that summer. A year later, in an effort to promote democratic change in Cuba, Clinton reinstated limited general licenses. But in 1996 the Cuban military shot down two American civilian aircraft and Clinton stopped all direct flights.
In 1998 Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, and Clinton allowed flights carrying religious pilgrims to go. After the pope’s successful visit, Clinton lifted the flight ban.
In 1999 travel restrictions to Cuba were in the news again when the Baltimore Orioles received a license to travel to Cuba under the American policy related to public performance.
Over the next decade a limited number of people traveled to Cuba for business, to export food and medicine, for professional conferences and symposiums, for other educational events, for public performances, for religious travel and for journalists on assignment. Families with relatives in Cuba could travel between the two countries once every three years. But this year new legislation enables greater frequency for visits. Families can now visit each other annually.
That’s where Allegiant comes in.
Several air carriers have held contracts to shuttle eligible travelers, and Allegiant is one of the latest to fly what is expected to be a growing number of people.
Allegiant is committing one of its MD-80 series twin-engine jets to the program. If it grows, there could be more. Because flights are over water, the company had to get special certification for any aircraft used.
The contract is fixed-fee flying for Allegiant, meaning that all the airline has to do is provide the aircraft and the flight crew. Separate companies handle all the reservations, and Allegiant has no risk on fuel costs because those are passed on to the contractor.
One of the companies that processes applications for licenses to go to Cuba and books reservations for charter flights is Miami-based Tico Travel.
Chelly Huby, an agent with Tico, said program participants face a mountain of paperwork before they can travel.
“I give them the restrictions, what they need to know to see if they fall under one of the laws,” Huby said. “If they don’t, they’re not able to go.”
Huby admitted she wasn’t familiar with Allegiant or its contract with the government. In fact, her first choice to shuttle passengers to Cuba is on foreign air carriers that have scheduled service to Cuba through Mexico or Costa Rica.
As for Allegiant, the company views the contract as one more new opportunity to make money in a time when most airlines aren’t.
Tyri Squyres, a spokeswoman for Allegiant, said the flights from Miami to Cuba will only take about a half-hour.
One of the unusual restrictions for the flight crews are that once they’re on Cuban soil, they can’t leave the aircraft.
“It’s pretty much loading the plane, flying the plane and unloading the plane,” she said.
Who knows, maybe we’ll sometime see a day when Americans will have the opportunity to see Cuba and Cubans will be able to visit their families in the United States whenever they want.
By then, Allegiant will know the way.
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