Tampa International Gets Federal OK for Charter Flights to Cuba
Tampa, Mar 7 -
Tampa International Airport has been given approval to operate charter flights to Cuba, officials announced this afternoon. Officials expect flights to begin by summer or early fall.
Airport officials say three licensed charter operators -- Air MarBrisa, Island Travel & Tours, Ltd., and ABC Charter -- have formally indicated their intention to provide service to Cuba from Tampa.
"We are very excited to be named a new gateway airport for Cuba. This announcement will result in much easier and more efficient travel for our considerable Cuban-American community," airport director Joe Lopano said in a statement.
Airport officials received word today from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in a letter dated Friday.
In its letter, U.S. Customs said it "would like to have discussions with the port authority and address the issue of designating optimal arrival times so that they can appropriately balance operational workloads with other foreign arrivals, including cruise ship arrivals."
Tampa International was able to apply for charter flights under new Obama administration guidelines announced in January, which allow "purposeful" travel to Cuba.
Passengers must have close relatives in Cuba or must be involved in medical and agriculture business sectors; or traveling for education and religious activities.
Last month, Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio tried unsuccessfully to get an amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration funding bill to "prevent the expansion of commerce through direct flights with state sponsors of terrorism," which the State Department lists as Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.
Rubio's office released a statement late this afternoon saying the senator still disapproves of adding flights to Cuba.
"Increasing direct commercial or charter aircraft flights with state sponsors of terrorism is totally irresponsible and amounts to unilateral gifts to tyrants and regimes that actively undermine America's security,'' Rubio said in the statement. "There is no reason for the United States to help enrich state sponsors of terrorism, especially at a time when free trade agreements with our close allies in Colombia, Panama and South Korea are lingering. Instead of doing business with regimes that undermine America's security and routinely violate the basic norms of human dignity, we should be bolstering our democratic allies through deeper economic ties."
The reaction was far different from U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who launched an initiative on behalf of Tampa International two years ago to permit Cuba flights from airports other Los Angeles, New York and Miami that already offer service.
"This is great news for our community, our economy and the Cuban-American families who for years had to endure the burden and cost of traveling through Miami," said a statement released by the office of Castor, a Tampa Democrat who is on her way back to the U.S. from Afghanistan.
The decision has been a long time in the making and opens a "new playing field" for Tampa Bay, said Jason Busto, co-chair for the chamber's Cuba flights committee.
"We've been working on this for so long," Busto said. "It's a big day for our community."
Businesses to benefit right away are travel agencies and medical and humanitarian groups, Busto said. Easier access to Cuba will also put Tampa in a better position to do more business with the country in the future.
Besides the inconvenience factor, Busto said, Tampa has been missing out on airport fees. For example, Miami's airport, he said, charges a $50 fee per traveler.
"That's money Tampa could be getting," he said. "This is so exciting and will increase our market access to Latin America."
Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce said the move will be a boon for travel agencies and make it easier and more economical for Cubans to travel to visit family.
"We're restoring our historical connection to Cuba," Rohrlack said.