Top Cuba charter follows others out of market as Tampa commercial flight
Paul Guzzo, Times Staff Writer
Monday, December 19, 2016 11:44am
Tessie Aral knew for months it was happening, yet she wept tears of both
joy and sadness Dec. 12 when Southwest Airlines launched its daily
service from Tampa to Havana.
Tears of joy because this first commercial flight in over 50 years
connecting Tampa and Cuba means relations between her birth country and
adopted homeland of the United States are continuing to improve.
Tears of sadness because it means her work bringing the two nations
together was ending.
In 2011, Aral's ABC Charters was the first charter flight company to
receive permission to fly from Tampa to Cuba, and the second to actually
launch the flights — two days after competitor Xael Travel. ABC Charters
navigated the route for longer than any other carrier.
The flights ended Nov. 29, in part because Aral leased planes from
American Airlines and JetBlue and they provide service themselves now
that commercial flights to Cuba have resumed. American flies from
Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami, and JetBlue from New York, Fort
Lauderdale and Orlando.
Aral was unable to secure planes elsewhere that were up to her standards.
"It's sad but for the best," said Aral, who also stopped her Miami to
Cuba charter flights. "I've always been focused on doing what was right
for Cuba and the U.S. and not what would give me monetary change."
This leaves one charter company flying from Tampa to Cuba — Havana Air,
with flights every Wednesday and Saturday on a 174-seat plane leased
from Eastern Air Lines.
Xael left the Tampa market in 2013 but remains in Miami. Cuba Travel
Services stopped flying to Cuba in August.
Island Travel & Tours had been offering flights but callers to its Tampa
office are told the service has been grounded until Cuba renews landing
rights. Island Travel president Bill Hauf could not be reached for comment.
Frank Reno, president of Tampa-based Cuba Executive Travel, who
organizes tours of the island, called these charter flights "catalysts
for where we are today for providing a service when the commercial
airlines could not."
Americans who flew these charters often returned home with their minds
changed, from favoring continued isolation of Cuba as U.S. policy to
opening the doors, Reno said.
Added Aral, "We also spent a lot of time in D.C. talking about the right
to travel to Cuba. Obama listened to us."
It is illegal for Americans to visit Cuba strictly for tourism, but
President Barack Obama has made it easier to travel there since
announcing in December 2014 that the nations would normalize relations.
Americans are allowed to visit Cuba under U.S. law so long as they
travel under one of 12 categories, including medical research or — the
box most often checked — to learn more about the island's people,
culture and history.
It is no coincidence, Aral said, that U.S. travel to Cuba has risen
According to the Cuban government, 90,000 Americans visited the island
nation that year. Through the first half of 2016 alone, the total was
These numbers, Aral said, are why commercial airlines wanted to get into
the Cuba market.
Still, Mark Elias, president of Havana Air, said his charter company
plans on remaining in Tampa and can compete with the commercial service.
Because there was no aviation agreement between the nations, Cuba could
charge U.S. charters landing fees as high as $24,000 per flight rather
than the international rate of around $400.
Under a signed arrangement, once commercial flights to Cuba began, fees
charged for U.S. planes must be in line with the rate the rest of the
world pays, allowing Havana Air to drop its prices now from over $400 to
$256 round trip.
After offering an introductory price of $149 round trip to Cuba,
Southwest is now selling tickets starting at $205.
Elias said that unlike commercial airlines, his company is a "one-stop
shop" for going to Cuba that can assist with booking tours.
As for ABC, it will become a travel agency specializing in Cuba.
"I feel like when my daughter went to college," Aral said. "I cried
because she was gone, but then I realized it was time for her to grow.
It was for the best."
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow
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