Posted on Sun, Sep. 11, 2011
Cuba travel set to take off as flight options expand
Vivian Mannerud has been in the business of arranging air charters to Cuba long enough to have seen it all — from the passengers who wear several hats on their heads to avoid extra baggage fees to the woman who stuffed sausages in her curlers. The grease running down her face was a giveaway.Since 1982, Mannerud, chief executive and founder of Coral Gables-based Airline Brokers Co., has transported Cuban families, as well as politicians, former political prisoners, athletes and humanitarian supplies, to and from the island. This pioneer in the Cuban charter business has seen the governments of Cuba and the United States shut down travel amid political tensions, and recalibrated her business as some U.S. presidents allowed more travel and others pared it down.
Now, the policy is for more expansive travel and Airline Brokers and other charter companies are once again poised for change.
Earlier this year, the United States authorized people-to-people exchanges that make it easier for a wider variety of Americans to visit Cuba, lifted some restrictions on academic trips, and expanded the number of cities that can serve as gateways for Cuba travel from three to 15.
While many have embraced the changes — a record number of travelers from the United States are expected this year — others have criticized the flights because landing fees and payments for other services flow to Cuban government coffers.
Miami International Airport has long been the main gateway for Cuba travel — eight charter companies handled 7,616 departing and arriving flights last year — and it will continue to be.
But now other U.S. cities are getting into the act. Airports in Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Fort Myers are among those that are now authorized for Cuban charter service.
The first charter flights to Cuba in nearly 50 years left from Tampa International Airport last week and Cuba service will begin from Fort Lauderdale Saturday.
Miami-based Xael Charters timed its inaugural flight from Tampa to Havana last Thursday to coincide with the feast day of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint. The airport staged a “Tampa to Havana Reconnected” event at the gate with live music and cake before the departure of the sold-out flight.
“We wanted to expand our business and Tampa historically has had strong ties with Cuba,’’ said Xiomara Almaguer-Levy, Xael’s president and chief executive. “It was here in Tampa, specifically Ybor City, where Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti, found the unconditional support of thousands of cigar workers’’ that was crucial to the success of Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain.
Xael now offers five weekly flights from Miami to Havana and flies twice a week from Miami to Holguin. It plans departures from Tampa every Thursday.
“The time is right,’’ said Almaguer-Levy.
This year, Cuban-Americans are expected to take a record 400,000 trips to Cuba, according to estimates from the charter companies. The number has been steadily climbing since 2009 when the Obama administration began allowing Cuban-Americans to visit the island at will.
More Americans traveling on educational and people-to-people exchanges, which are designed to foster relationships with ordinary Cubans, are expected to boost the numbers even higher.
On Sept. 10, another South Florida charter company, ABC Charters, was scheduled to launch its inaugural flight from Tampa, and Cuba has granted landing rights to a third company, San Diego-based Island Travel & Tours, which also wants to begin charter service from Tampa, possibly by October.
Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, says it remains to be seen if Tampa can support three charter operations.
But she said her analysis showed about 100 Central Florida passengers a week were traveling on ABC flights from Miami — enough to support a weekly or twice weekly flight from Tampa during peak season.
Aral said ABC, which is owned by her mother Maria “Machi” Brieva, also has been authorized to begin charters from Dallas. She thinks the market has potential, especially as a jumping off point for educational exchanges from colleges and universities in the Midwest. But for the time being, Aral said she prefers to concentrate on service from Tampa and Miami using leased American Airlines planes.
Airlines such as American, Delta and JetBlue aren’t allowed to offer regular service to Cuba, but they are permitted to lease aircraft to the charter companies. Some airlines see another advantage in having their planes land in Havana. “Some of them want to make connections and build relationships for the future’’ if commercial flights resume some day, said Mannerud.
On Saturday, it will be Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport’s turn to inaugurate Cuba service when Mannerud’s Airline Brokers begins weekly service using a leased JetBlue aircraft.
At $379, the flight from Fort Lauderdale will be slightly cheaper than Airline Broker’s Miami flights ($409-$439) and will be a convenience for Cuban-Americans living in Broward and Palm Beach counties, Mannerud said.
Airline Brokers still plans to keep its full schedule of flights to Havana and Cienfuegos from Miami. Mannerud said she also might be interested in the Boston market as a source of passengers on educational and research trips.
While Florida cities have the advantage of being closest to Cuba, existing charter companies and newcomers are eyeing the opportunities of flying from airports such as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Dallas.
The new embarkation cities are good news for passengers such as Gladys Ponce, who on a recent day waited patiently in line with her husband and 3 ½-year-old son Jareth to check in for a Gulfstream Air Charter flight from Miami to Havana.
The family lives in Tucson, Ariz., and had spent $1,000 just to get to Miami.
All the bundles they were taking to friends and relatives in Batabano, Cuba, had been carefully weighed in advance so they knew exactly how much they would be paying in extra baggage fees and wouldn’t be getting another economic jolt when their baggage was weighed. In fact, Cuba travelers take so much luggage that charters do not fly at full capacity.
But the family’s next trip may be far cheaper. They’ll have the option of traveling from Los Angeles or possibly even Houston or Dallas.
Critics of charters from Miami have long complained that the fares are too high for a relatively short trip.
“I have heard complaints [from constituents] of price gouging and exorbitant baggage fees,’’ said U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami.
But the charter companies say that a number of factors make their flights more expensive.
First, they are charters and must lease their planes from other companies that also must make a profit.
The price of most tickets also includes medical insurance while in Cuba, U.S. departure taxes and landing fees in Cuba, said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters.
Then because the U.S. embargo against Cuba prohibits them from having their own operations bases in Cuba, the charter companies must sub-contract in Cuba for ticket and ramp agents and other services, said charter operators.
It also would be cheaper to do night flights, but Mannerud said the charters are required to fly during the day so Customs can inspect passengers without incurring overtime expenses.
“We also have to deal with tons of attorneys, tons of regulations and all the agencies we must report to in order to make sure we’re compliant,’’ she said.
Prior to June, when U.S. Customs and Border Patrol approved a dozen additional airports to handle flights to and from Cuba, the only way to legally travel from the United States was to take a charter from Miami or New York with occasional flights from Los Angeles during peak travel times.
Among the charter companies planning to roll out service from additional cities are:
• C & T Charters, which has offices in Coral Gables and Key West. It expects to begin offering service from San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 16 and Chicago on Oct. 18.
“There is still some paperwork to be done,’’ said Marcelo Santos, vice president of operations. The charter company currently offers daily flights from Miami to Havana, twice weekly service between Miami and Camaguey and weekly New York-Havana service.
• CTS (Cuba Travel Services), which is based in Long Beach, Calif. The company had a shakeout trip from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Santiago, Cuba, last month and plans to begin regular charter service on the route Nov. 4. “We’ll see how it goes’’ and add another San Juan flight if the market is there, said Michael Zuccato, CTS general manager.
The charter company also plans to resume weekly nonstop flights from Los Angeles on Nov. 1 using Continental planes and is interested in providing service from Houston and seasonal charters from Oakland, Calif. Zuccato said CTS also hopes to offer service from Fort Lauderdale but airport officials said last week that they hadn’t been contacted by the company.
CTS currently offers nine weekly flights from MIA to Havana and Cienfuegos
The company’s niche will continue to be travel by Cuban-Americans visiting their families, but Zuccato said Californians, especially, are interested in people-to-people trips.
• Marazul, a pioneer in the Cuba charter industry with more than three decades in the business. It hopes to begin weekly service from Atlanta in December using Delta planes and resume weekly service from New York’s JFK, a market that it hasn’t served since 2004, on Nov. 6, said Guild.
Marazul currently offers daily flights between Miami and Havana ($429 to $449 round trip) and twice weekly flights to Camaguey ($499). It’ll also book travelers on flights from New York and Los Angeles provided by other charter companies.
Guild said he expects academic travel to be a big category. Schools no longer have to apply for a specific license from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to put together Cuban study trips. But they won’t be able to organize a spring-break excursion. Students must take courses for credit.
The charter companies say it’s too early to tell what kind of numbers travelers on people-to-people exchanges will add to the mix. But most of the travel groups are small, with 16 to 30 people.
A few of the companies that had planned to offer such trips also have had their wings clipped. Luxury travel provider Abercrombie & Kent, for example, had sold out 13 trips before it learned that its plan to use the license of a nonprofit group wouldn’t be allowed under OFAC regulations.
Many of the companies offering people-to-people exchanges are trying to tap into the mystique about Cuba that has developed during the 50-plus years of the embargo.
A recent survey by Travel Leaders, the largest travel agency franchise in North America, showed 75 percent of nearly 1,000 consumers surveyed throughout the United States said they wanted to visit Cuba or would consider it if all restrictions on travel were lifted. Twenty percent said they would travel immediately.
Guild says in 2003 — the last full year of people-to-people exchanges before a policy change by the Bush administration — about 40,000 Americans in that category traveled to the island.
Two South Florida congressmen, however, have problems with the people-to-people trips.
On April 11, the day the first people-to-people trip in 7 ½ years took off from Miami International Airport, Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart issued a statement saying there had been “numerous abuses amounting to thinly veiled tourism.’’ Those on the trips are supposed to engage in purposeful travel that will promote exchanges with the Cuban people.
He and Rivera want to roll back travel regulations for Cuban-Americans to what they were before President Obama took office. Bills they have proposed would limit remittances that can be sent to the island and severely restrict family visits by Cuban-Americans, but Rivera’s goes a step further calling for the elimination of people-to-people visits. The legislators say the intent of their bills is to keep money from flowing to the Castro regime.
But Xael’s Almaguer-Levy said unrestricted travel must continue. To her, it’s more than just business. “It’s unfair that families can’t meet whenever they want,’’ she said. “The most important relationship that exists in Cuba is the family relationship. Political interests shouldn’t work against families.’’
“It’s very frustrating,’’ said ABC’s Aral. “Just when things are going well, someone wants to target’’ Cuba travel.
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