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Carriers dropping Tampa-Cuba charter flights

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:55 AM

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TAMPA -

Tampa International Airport is losing one of its three Cuba charter carriers and two of its five weekly flights to the island nation next month.

The changes, which come less than a year and a half after direct flights began from Tampa to Cuba, could eventually mean higher air fares for those flights.

XAEL Charters Inc. will discontinue its Tampa-Havana flight Feb. 14 and plans to relocate to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale sometime this year. In addition, ABC Charters will end its flights from Tampa to Holguin, Cuba, on Feb. 28.

Island Travel & Tours Ltd., the only one of the charter carriers based in Tampa, will maintain its Wednesday and Sunday flights between Tampa and Havana. Miami-based ABC Charters will maintain its Saturday flight between Tampa and Havana.

"Given that this is first time in more than 50 years for air service between Cuba and Tampa, it is natural to see some adjustments as the market evolves," Tampa International spokeswoman Janet Zink said.

Fewer flights could mean those remaining will be more full, helping the charter operators improve their ratio of costs to revenue.

But the competition between the three carriers meant each was reluctant to increase price air fares and baggage fees. Fares may need to rise beyond current levels of about $420 round trip, though, for the carriers to make a profit.

Mercy Casals, executive vice president and general manager of XAEL Charters, said the flights to Cuba were successful during high-travel times like the summer, Christmas and spring break. During other periods, she said, there was a drop in the number of passengers.

"There were flights that were more profitable than others," she said.

Tessie Aral, president of Miami-based ABC Charters, could not be reached for comment.

Bill Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours Ltd., said three carriers serving the relatively limited travel market to Cuba led to excessive price cutting.

"We anticipate stabilizing prices in 2013," Hauf said.

Daniel De La Rosa, owner of Air Mar Brisa on Columbus Drive, said XAEL contacted him last month about discontinuing its Thursday flight between Tampa and Havana.

While the flights were packed during peak periods, De La Rosa said, the flights to Cuba during off season had only about 50 passengers, leaving the Boeing 737 jets less than half full.

"They lose too much money and it can’t be recuperated with the rest of the flights throughout the year," De La Rosa said.

Tampa International was one of the first airports to get U.S. and Cuban permission to join Miami, Los Angeles and New York to host Cuban charter flights when the Obama administration changed its policy in early 2011 on flights to Cuba.

ABC Charters and XAEL began Tampa-Havana flights in September 2011, followed by Island Tours the following month.

"Maybe it would have been better to gradually grow with flights to Cuba," XAEL’s Casals said. "Maybe it grew too fast."


tjackovics@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7817

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