TAMPA - U.S. and Cuban authorities have granted Tampa-based Island Travel & Tours Ltd. approval to add a non-stop Tampa-Havana flight on Fridays beginning Nov. 1, company President Bill Hauf said Monday.
Island Travel will add Friday to its schedule of round-trip flights following a strong summer travel season that has kept its seats filled as well as those of a rival charter carrier.
"This will give travelers more flexibility on when they can leave and return," Hauf said.
Island Travel's new flight will extend Tampa-Havana service to four days a week: Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays by Island Travel and Saturdays by competitor ABC Charters.
The Havana-Tampa schedules over four days a week enhance Tampa International Airport's prospects to become a formidable gateway to Cuba, Hauf said.
Hauf also envisions seeking government approval for a flight to Santa Clara beginning in November.
Passenger demand for that flight will be tested in a new service that begins Sunday, when Island Travel will inaugurate connecting ground transportation for Tampa flights at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport with Santa Clara and Cienfuegos.
"Depending on demand that we might find with our transfer service, we are contemplating seeking U.S. and Cuba approval for non-stop flights between Tampa International and Santa Clara," Hauf said.
"We know a great number of people in Tampa who have relatives in the Santa Clara area. We do not know if there is sufficient demand for a Santa Clara flight yet, although we can learn from inaugurating the shuttle service."
Santa Clara, with a population of about 250,000, is about 170 miles east of Havana and Cienfuegos, with a population of 187,000, is 140 miles southeast of Havana.
While Island Travel will eliminate its second Sunday flight between Tampa and Havana after Aug. 18th when peak summer travel concludes, those lost seats will be recouped once the November Friday flights begin.
Tessie Aral, owner of the Miami-based ABC Charters Inc., which serves Havana and Holguin from Tampa International, like Island Travel, has enjoyed strong summer ridership this year.
Overall, ABC Charters has sold out 23 of 36 flights the first two weeks in August between its Tampa and Miami U.S. destinations and its three destinations in Cuba, bookings through Monday indicate.
"We keep working on it," Aral said. "It takes time to build a market and we all just started in Tampa less than two years ago."
Scheduled charter service between Tampa and Cuba resumed in late 2011 after a 50-year hiatus created by U.S.-Cuba political tensions.
Aral said now that Tampa has two carriers rather than three, there's more balance but competition is retained.
Miami-based Xael relocated its Havana flight from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale in February when all three carries reportedly were losing money.
"With two operators, this is about the right size for Tampa's Cuba market," Aral said.
Air fares vary, but round-trip flights between Tampa and Havana are around $475-$500, up about $50 or so when there were three carriers.