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Tampa picked for airline flights to Havana

In this Sept. 3, 2012 file photo, Juan, a Cuban-American man who did not want to give his last name, front, pushes bundles after getting off a flight from the U.S. as his brother who lives in Cuba, behind, helps him with other packages at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba.
In this Sept. 3, 2012 file photo, Juan, a Cuban-American man who did not want to give his last name, front, pushes bundles after getting off a flight from the U.S. as his brother who lives in Cuba, behind, helps him with other packages at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba. AP

The U.S. government has proposed eight airlines to begin scheduled passenger service to Havana, as carriers hustle to open regular flights to the Cuban capital for the first time in half a century. Tampa was selected as one of 10 cities set to receive flights.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced its preliminary decision Thursday morning to award Tampa daily nonstop service to Havana aboard Southwest Airlines. Flights may begin as early as this fall, the Department of Transportation said in a statement Thursday. The other airlines winning approval for Havana service are American, Delta, United, Spirit, Alaska, Frontier and JetBlue.

“This is such an exciting day for us,” Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano said in a statement. “The DOT’s decision reflects the strength of our market and the unprecedented support of leaders and travelers throughout the Tampa Bay area. Our community provided a solid and consistent voice in this most recent proceeding, with dozens of letters filed in the docket in support of commercial flights from Tampa to Havana and nearly 6,000 people signing an online petition in support of the flights.”

The proposed flights would begin normalizing air links between the U.S. and Cuba after the Cold War rivals' decades-long estrangement. U.S. airlines applied for almost 60 flights a day to Havana, triple the 20 daily frequencies authorized under the arrangement between the U.S. and Cuba.

"By restoring regular air service for the first time in more than 50 years, we have before us the chance to reunite Cuban-American families and foster educational, cultural and commercial opportunities and experiences for American citizens and businesses," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a press conference.

The Tampa Bay region is home to the third-largest Cuban population in the United States.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, said the flights will enhance Tampa Bay’s connection to Cuba.

"Direct, commercial flights between Tampa and Havana, Cuba, will strengthen family ties and open our communities to greater engagement and progress. Tampa is an important ‘Gateway to Cuba’ and, as one of only 10 U.S. cities to win direct commercial flights to Havana today, will expand opportunities over the coming years,” Castor said in a statement released by TIA. “Tampa International Airport was successful due in large part to a united community that for years has relayed their support for these flights and for increasing engagement between our community and the island nation.”

Southwest Airlines is Tampa’s largest airline carrier, making up about 35 percent of all flights. Southwest also won nonstop service from Fort Lauderdale.

DOT’s announcement capped off months of competition for the ability to fly to the Cuban capital. U.S. airlines had competed for authorization since March, lining up scores of airport directors, travel agencies and chambers of commerce in support of their applications.

Last month, the agency approved six U.S. airlines to begin scheduled flights to nine Cuban cities other than Havana. Travelers flying to Cuba must be from one of 12 categories, including people visiting family, working journalists, people on official government business and others. Tourist travel is not yet approved.

U.S. cities set to receive flights to Havana include New York, Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles, as well as Charlotte, N.C., and Newark, N.J. In addition to Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Orlando will receive flights in Florida.

The public has 30 days to comment on the DOT's proposal. Foxx said the agency hopes to finalize its decision before the end of the summer.

The Transportation Department opted not to allocate any of the daily Havana frequencies to four smaller airlines: Silver Airways, Sun Country Airlines, Eastern Air Lines Group and Dynamic International Airways, according to an order issued Thursday.

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