Commercial planes haven't flown from Tampa to Cuba in half a century. In three weeks, that's about to change, thanks to a federal ruling on which airports can offer direct flights to the island nation.
When that change will take effect, though, is suddenly in doubt.
Three competing air services are now scrambling for passengers, along with the bragging rights and publicity of offering the first official flight from Tampa to Havana in 50 years.
Last month, ABC Charters announced plans to begin non-stop service to Cuba on Sept. 10. Since then, XAEL Charters Inc. appears to have leapfrogged ahead; that company now plans to take off from Tampa International Airport to Cuba two days earlier than its competitor, on Sept. 8.
Tessie Aral, president of Miami-based ABC Charters, said her early announcement clearly tipped off her competitors and allowed them to jockey for the prestige of being the first Tampa-to-Havana flight in five decades.
"Am I happy? No. But you have to deal with the cards dealt to you," Aral said. "I guess they're doing the right thing for their business. I actually hurt myself."
Xiomara Almaguer-Levi, XAEL director, said the Sept. 8 date helps her get a jump on the competition.
"We are very happy to be in this position," she said. "We know how important this is for Tampa."
XAEL is in the process of obtaining an operating agreement with Sky King airlines to fly out of Tampa, airport spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan said. The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority will vote on that contract Sept. 1.
Geoghagan said it's likely the contract will be approved and XAEL will get the recognition of being the first flight from Tampa to Havana.
"Operating agreements are easy to get," Geoghagan said.
Almaguer-Levi expects the deal to go through.
"All things are in order," she said.
ABC Charters has an agreement with American Airlines and its Sept. 10 flight, with 110 seats, is already sold out. Local travel agents are accepting reservations for XAEL's Sept. 8 flight.
Aral said the distinction of being first may look good on a company's list of achievements, but what matters in the long run is service.
"Who's going to offer the best service, the best flights?" she said. "We fly Saturday, they fly Thursday. That's a big advantage for me. A week later, no one's going to remember who flew first."
A third company, Island Travel & Tours LTD, has also been approved to provide charter flights from Tampa to Cuba. Bill Hauf, company president, said his first flight should be sometime in September but that he has not locked down an exact date.
Charter flights from Miami to Cuba have been operating for years. Aral said her company has been booking flights to Havana and Holguin in Cuba since 1979.
Both ABC Charters and XAEL Charters are sticking with one flight per week to Cuba for now. Aral said that may change before the year is over, depending on demand.
"I was going to be very aggressive," she said of the frequency her company would offer flights. "But now, let's see what everybody else does."
The Tampa airport is one of nine U.S. airports that Cuban officials have granted landing rights.
Even when the new flights begin operating, the restrictions on who can travel from the United States to Cuba will remain in effect, in general limiting travel to those with relatives in Cuba or those on academic, business or religious-related missions.