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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Travel

Cuba charter flights ready for take off

Posted April 14, 2009 by publisher in Cuba Travel.
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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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Member Comments

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On April 15, 2009, bernie wrote:

If you leave for Cuba from Canada the price of a ticket round trip on Air Transit is $400.00.
It would be nice if they allowed a ferryboat to travel to Cuba, and then the airline companies would be more competitive, and would not be seen as the money gouging mercenaries that they are.

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On April 15, 2009, publisher wrote:

By Deepa Seetharaman and Kyle Peterson | Reuters

The U.S. leisure industry could reap rich rewards if lawmakers relax Cuban travel bans, but industry experts warn that several hurdles still block a potentially huge payday for cruise companies, hotels and airlines.

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama opened a crack in the decades-old U.S. embargo against Cuba, allowing American telecommunications firms to start providing service for Cubans and lifting restrictions on family ties to the island.

The move marked a major shift from the prior approach to Havana, as Obama ended limits on family travel and money transfers by Cubans in the United States to their homeland and spurred hopes that loosened travel restrictions could be next.

But experts warn there is little clarity on if and when limits on commercial trade will be lifted. Some expressed doubts about Cuba’s ability to handle the potential deluge of thousands of U.S. tourists.

“The hype about U.S. tourism in Cuba far exceeds the existing infrastructure,” said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

The travel industry has long eyed Cuba as a desirable destination for American tourists. The country’s capital city, Havana, is little more than 200 miles from Miami, the home base of two of the world’s largest cruise ship operators: Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corp.

A port in Cuba would be a boon for these companies as they can offer new trips at minimal fuel costs and jump-start demand for more cruises to the Caribbean, a key market.

Americans “have not seen Cuba in 50 years,” said Jay Lewis, president of the Miami-based cruise consultancy Passenger & Shipping Institute. “There is a great allure of the unknown.”

European cruise operators have offered trips to Cuba for years and Kavulich said 2 million tourists journey to the island nation each year.

In the past decade, both Royal Caribbean and Carnival have bought European companies that have at one point offered routes to Cuba. In 2000, Carnival bought Italian company Costa Cruises, and Royal Caribbean acquired Spanish cruise ship operator Pullmantur in 2006. Both businesses stopped offering Cuban trips when they were bought.

“We have a pretty good idea about the infrastructure there because of the European lines that we acquired previously,” said Tim Gallagher, Carnival spokesman.

Cruise lines will likely benefit first, some experts said, because it can take years to build up resort-style hotels on shore. Even so, capacity questions remain.

“If you have a 2,000-passenger cruise vessel at the port of Havana, at some point they’re going to want to have lunch,” Kavulich said.

“There are three restaurants—how are you going to feed 2,000 people at one time?”

AIRLINES STAND TO BENEFIT

Obama directed the U.S. government to look at sending regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba. Air travel between the two countries is now limited to charter flights.

Demand for air travel between the United States and Cuba is unclear, experts said. But they generally agree that airlines with operations in Miami and up the East Coast are best-positioned to win customers.

“There’s huge pent-up demand,” said Joe Schweiterman, travel expert at DePaul University in Chicago.

“The hubs in the South will be attractive gateways to Cuba,” he said. “Miami could support a full-blown shuttle operation.”

At Miami International Airport, AMR Corp’s American Airlines carries the largest percentage of traffic by far. JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines have large operations in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“We have been flying some charter flights to Cuba,” AMR spokesman Tim Smith said. “For the present, we will continue those charters based on demand for them. (But it’s) too early to talk about the future beyond that.”

Experts say Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines with hubs in the New York area, which also has a large Cuban population, stand to benefit as well.

Cuban air travel has increased lately. Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) showed a 7.3 percent increase in travel to and from the nation in 2008. Travel between Mexico and Cuba surged 10.9 percent in 2008, while travel between Canada and Cuba fell 20.8 percent.

“We could see a significant increase in traffic with the changes announced this week,” IATA spokesman Steven Lott said. “We see significant demand for expanded air service.”

“It opens the door a little bit but not all the way,” he said. “This is certainly a hint of greater liberalization to come.”

(editing by Patrick Fitzgibbons and Matthew Lewis)