Houston airport's first charter to Cuba takes off Thursday
By Ronnie Crocker
Published 07:10 p.m., Monday, January 30, 2012
The first Cuba-bound charter flight from Bush Intercontinental Airport departs Thursday with a Houston-based group taking advantage of relaxed travel rules that went into effect last year.
The flight, aboard a Miami-based 737, will include 80 passengers with visas specified for "people-to-people" exchanges, the Houston Airport System said. The group will fly into Havana and return to Houston on Sunday.
The Airport System issued a statement calling the trip "a wonderful, historic opportunity" that could help Bush Intercontinental with its goal of becoming a major "gateway" to Cuba.
"While we do not have word today on any other charters over the near term, this is the first of what we expect will be many flights between Houston and Cuba as IAH becomes the gateway of choice for travelers authorized to fly to Cuba by the U.S. government," the statement said.
No information was released on the travelers, who asked not to be publicly identified, or what they plan to do in Cuba.
The Obama administration a year ago announced it would ease travel prohibitions from the half-century-old embargo to increase family-related travel and trips by authorized groups in a small number of specific areas, including agriculture, medicine, education and religious activity.
Other restrictions remain in effect. For example, it is still illegal for Americans to vacation on the Caribbean island.
Last March, Bush Intercontinental was added to the list of U.S. airports that could handle flights to Cuba.
Laura Murillo, president of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said she was not aware of the plans for the Thursday flight, but she said the chamber welcomes "anything that can help our business community move around and get around to the places they want to visit."
Marazul Charters, a major player in arranging legal U.S.-to-Cuba flights, set up the Thursday flight.
The airplane belongs to Miami Air International, a carrier licensed to fly to Cuba. CEO Ross Fischer said he could not comment on his clients for Thursday's trip, but said the company is interested in increasing flights to the island from Houston.
Fischer praised the airport facilities and also noted that Cuba flights originating at Bush Intercontinental are more profitable because the longer flight time allows his company to charge more. He declined to say how much a seat costs.
Like the new but suspended charter flights from Atlanta, JFK and Chicago and other cities without a large Cuban American population, the Houston flight will find it challenging to establish itself unless the White House further liberalizes travel for the rest of us.
The President could use his authority to give people to people travel a general license which would permit families and backpackers who attest to their non-tourist agendas a more economical way to travel. Their ability to rent cars, use public buses and trains, and stay in casas particulares (bed and breakfasts) will foster greater direct engagement with Cubans than afforded by the group tours which are currently required by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), plus provide more direct support to the emerging private sector.
An even easier intermediate step is for the President to grant general licenses to all IRS registered non-profits and third party providers of educational exchange as he did to universities and religious organizations. That would remove them from the time consuming and arbitrary bureaucratic log jam of OFAC.
Finally the President should allow all travel agents and tour operators to book authorized travel instead of only 250 licensed Travel Service Providers that are mostly Cuban American and mostly located in Florida.
The Cuban American caucus in Congress will oppose this as it does even the President's opening for Cuban Americans. They are terrified that too many people will draw their own conclusions about the complicated and evolving reality in Cuba. Their argument about economic impact of even 100,000 non-tourist travelers is nonsensical in the annual context of more than 2.5 million foreign visitors and 400,000 Cuban Americans.
In addition to increasing the impact of exchanges in both countries, a stronger initiative by the President will create hundreds and eventually thousands of jobs in the US travel industry and support services. He will also end the Jim Crow system which privileges the right of non-tourist travel by Cuban Americans over that of everyone else.
Fund for Reconciliation and Development