Despite Tampa’s ties to Cuba, commercial flights are elusive
By Paul Guzzo- Tribune Staff
TAMPA — As the first commercial flights to Cuba are announced in the coming months, Tampa is unlikely to make the list, aviation analysts say.
That puts at risk efforts by local leaders to forge modern links on the foundation of historical connections between the two regions in the areas of culture, business, politics and education.
Ease of travel is seen as key to capitalizing on the normalization of relations with the communist nation, and few are predicting when a second round of direct flights will be announced — other than to say it could be months or even years away.
What’s more, in a worst-case scenario, the rise of commercial flights to Cuba from other cities could push existing charter services out of business — including those flying from Tampa seven times a week — and leave the region with no direct connection to Cuba.
Among the casualties could be a Cuban consulate in Tampa or St. Petersburg, pushed for by local business and political leaders, and the direct flights home that Tampa’s Cuban-American population — third-largest in the United States — have enjoyed since charters started at Tampa International Airport in 2011.
“Airplanes are an expensive asset and they need to be put where they will make the most amount of money,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with the San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group. “So unfortunately, Tampa will not be in that first wave of commercial flights.”
Miami, home to the largest Cuban-American population in the United States, will get most of the commercial routes to Cuba at its international airport. Even if airlines choose a second Florida city in round one, analysts say, it likely will be nearby Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport.
“The primary carrier in Tampa is Southwest,” said George Hamlin of Virginia-based Hamlin Transportation Consulting. Southwest has said it is interested in commercial service to Cuba. “But Southwest may have divided loyalties. They also have a strong carrier in Fort Lauderdale, which has a geographic advantage.”Not only is Fort Lauderdale closer to Miami, Hamlin said, Tampa passengers would fly south toward Cuba through Fort Lauderdale but the reverse is unlikely. “You’re not going to flow people from Lauderdale to Tampa to fly them southeast,” he said.
Fort Lauderdale along with the Tampa area is rumored to be a favorite for the first Cuban consulate in five decades — the two nations reopened embassies in August — and ease of travel could tip the scales, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
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Tampa International could maintain its charter schedule if the numbers stay up — 71,462 people made the trip in fiscal 2015, up 10,000 from the year before. But the numbers could drop dramatically because people from outside the area who travel here for the charter flights would likely choose commercial flights from other cities, instead, for amenities such as online tickets and a crew that transfers baggage.
Charter flight passengers headed to Cuba must arrive at Tampa International four hours early to get tickets and must haul any baggage from connecting flights themselves. Another challenge for the charters will be hanging onto planes and crew. The commercial airlines now provide them to charter companies serving Cuba. Both charter companies operating out of Tampa International, ABC Charters and Cuba Travel Services, use American Airlines planes and crew.
American Airlines has plans to operate commercial flights out of Miami, spokesperson Matt Miller told the Tribune, but he declined to elaborate. He said he could not comment on whether flights are planned from Tampa. “We do not know at this point what the future will look like in terms of a breakdown between scheduled service and charter service,” Miller said.
In the event American does fly from Miami, transportation consultant Hamlin said, the airlines might send Tampa customers to Miami for flights rather than help charter companies that compete with the airline. “Charters will be largely converted to scheduled service,” Hamlin said. “The charter service was an accommodation when the scheduled service was not available.”
Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services, said he is confident planes will remain available to his charter service and he plans to continue operating here as well as in Miami. “I think we will have fewer flights,” Zuccato said. “But the charter component will always exist.”
The United States and Cuba struck a deal to allow as many as 110 daily flights once commercial service begins — a maximum of 20 a day to Havana and up to 10 each at nine other Cuban cities with international airports. It’s a low number, analysts say, and that’s bad news for Tampa.
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The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to begin accepting route applications from airlines in the coming weeks. At least five airlines have expressed interest — American, JetBlue, United Airlines, Southwest and Delta. More are expected.
Cuba charter services focus on Florida because the state has more Cuban-Americans than any other. Commercial airlines, on the other hand, will use their marketing power to sell tickets to Cuba on a national scale and will choose departure cities to maximize business, analysts say.
Favored cities will be those located near large Cuban-American populations and those with an airline’s major hub, said Robert Mann, an aviation industry analyst through his New York-based R.W. Mann & Co. Tampa’s airport is not a major hub for any airlines. And customers among the area’s estimated 150,000 Cuban-Americans likely will be seen as willing to make the trip to South Florida for a flight, Mann said.
For other regions — say, Tulsa, Oklahoma, — the deciding factor in travel to Cuba may be whether there is a nearby airport with an airline that goes there, Mann said.
Tulsa International Airport is a 90-minute connecting flight from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and Houston is one of two Cuba departure sites preferred by United Airlines, said United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson.
“We at United have expressed interest in serving Cuba from Newark and Houston,” Johnson told the Tribune via email. “Newark and Houston are two of United’s largest hub airports.”
Newark Liberty International Airport is in an area stretching from northern New Jersey to New York City that has been nicknamed “Havana on the Hudson,” with the second-largest Cuban-American population in the United States.
Other airports that analysts predict will receive the first wave of commercial flights to Cuba are Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, a major hub for Delta, and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, a major hub for three airlines seeking commercial flights to Cuba — Jet Blue, Delta and American — and located in the city considered the U.S. capital of travel and commerce.
The 110 daily flights agreed upon may be restricted further at first because Cuba is not ready for the influx of new visitors. That, in turn, could limit the number of Cuba flight cities in the United States.
In 2015, Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors, up 17 percent from 2014 due in part to more American visitors. With only an estimated 63,000 hotel rooms nationwide, Cuba is struggling to handle even this surge — and it comes with just 12 charter flights a day on average from the United States, according to Virginia-based Aviation Planning & Finance.
“The ability to fly many flights is there,” said transportation consultant Hamlin. “But where are you going to put the people?”
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Even if Tampa makes the cut now on route applications submitted by the airlines to the Department of Transportation, analysts predict the airlines would cross the city off as the number of flights shrinks.
“You really have to ration the flights and put them where they can generate the most good,” said Harteveldt with Atmosphere Research Group. If the charters evaporate, too, the dream of hosting that first Cuban consulate will, too, said Kavulich with the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
“Consulates need to be as self-sustaining as possible,” Kavulich said. “That revenue comes primarily from visa fees, so a lack of flights would impact that revenue source.”
Still, Kavulich said he believes Cuba will look out for Tampa, even if private enterprise doesn’t, and work to save some charter flights here or to add a commercial flight.
“This is also a political exercise,” he said. “Cuba may ask for a Tampa route because it’s been aggressive with outreach.”
Tampa has exchanged dignitaries and delegations with the island nation and forged cultural and science partnerships with Cuba.
The Tampa City Council, Hillsborough County Commission and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce all have voted into bring the consulate to Tampa. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman traveled to Cuba to lobby for his city and the St. Petersburg City Council has also voted its support.
Then there is the historic Tampa-Cuba connection dating back a century, before Miami even was incorporated, when Cuban immigrants helped found Ybor City. Tampa went on become the cigar capital of the world using Cuban tobacco. Tampa also was a favorite haunt for José Martí, regarded as the George Washington of Cuba, and the city’s residents supported the island nation’s War of Independence against Spain.
Tampa International, which has made adding international flights a priority, isn’t ready to give up on service to Cuba, Vice President of Marketing Chris Minner told the Tribune via email. “We are always working with our partners to grow TPA’s existing air service and bring in new routes,” Minner said. “Service to Cuba remains a special focus.”
The airport needs broad-based help from the Tampa area in its effort, said Bill Carlson, president of Tucker/Hall, a public relations agency that has supported business and humanitarian missions in Cuba since 1999.
“I feel confident that Tampa Bay will get at least one commercial flight, but it will take a unified effort of business, political and cultural leaders working with the airport to make that happen,” Carlson said. “We cannot afford to lose this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reclaim our historic position with Cuba.”
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