TAMPA — Commercial airlines have not yet obtained landing rights from the Cuban government, but JetBlue Airways already is putting its arm around the new market with the announcement it will fly there and back from Miami and Tampa beginning June 5.
Still, don’t rush to book flights at the website of the popular New York-based discount airline. There’s nothing there.
Instead, the announcement Thursday amounts to an expansion of the charter service that JetBlue has contracted to provide since 2011 for ABC Charters of Miami and Tampa.
Tampa flights through ABC Charters soon will be added every Friday to Havana, joining existing flights on Tuesdays to Havana and Wednesdays to Santa Clara.
JetBlue hasn’t trumpeted its Cuba service before, or its relationship with ABC Charters.
But on Jan. 16, as part of a sweeping announcement that the U.S. will move to restore relations with the communist island nation, President Barack Obama said he is ending the five-decade-old ban on U.S. commercial airline service there.
Cuba, long the forbidden fruit for most U.S. travelers, stands to develop into a popular new destination and a moneymaker for the airlines.
Miami Attorney Peter Quinter, who specializes in international trade, has no inside knowledge about the timing of JetBlue’s announcement but said it was to be expected.
“This appears to be their way of getting their name out there,” Quinter said, “so it becomes linked to Cuban flights.”
That sentiment was echoed by Antonio C. Martinez II, a New York-lawyer specializing in Cuba assets.
“This was absolutely a marketing ploy by JetBlue,” Martinez said. “Prior to these changes in the times, JetBlue probably didn’t see any financial gain in discussing its relationship with a charter company doing business with Cuba. But now it is staking its claim and other airlines better take notice.”
JetBlue, along with American, Southwest, United, and Delta, have expressed an interest in getting into the Cuba flight business.
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Scott Laurence, a senior vice president at JetBlue, said in a news release Thursday about the new Tampa flight: “Cuba will one day play an important role in our overall Caribbean network, a region where customer response has already helped us grow into the leading U.S. airline.”
Laurence added, “Expanding our charter program today reflects the thoughtful approach we are taking in Cuba over the long-term.”
The airline’s existing charter service gives it familiarity with the infrastructure involved in flights to Cuba, said spokesman Morgan Johnston.
“It helps position us should those commercial flights come available,” Johnston said.
Attorneys Quinter and Martinez estimate it will take at least a year before commercial airlines offer regular flights to Cuba.
Meantime, those interested in serving the market will continue to do so as they have for decades — by partnering with a charter company like ABC Charters.
The financial risk today falls squarely on the charter companies.
Miami-based ABC Charters covers all the costs of the flights, which includes the wages of the JetBlue crew and the cost of renting all 150 seats on an Airbus A320 aircraft, regardless of whether or not the flight is sold out, said company President Tessie Aral.
“This is considered a JetBlue flight chartered by ABC,” Aral said. “But JetBlue would not be putting it in the air if I didn’t ask for it.”
Still, Aral has no objection to the airline showcasing its Cuba experience.
“I couldn’t do this without them,” she said. “They are a great partner.”
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Aral was working to add more flights from Tampa even before Obama’s move.
“We have been trying to build the Tampa market for a while, and based on recent sales before the president’s announcement we believed we could add another,” Aral said.
Now, travel to Cuba will be even easier. Rather than individual licenses issued on a case by case basis, U.S. citizens can travel on general licenses provided they fall into one of 12 travel categories, including education and support for the Cuban people.
Flights from Tampa to Cuba increased from 45,595 in 2013 to 61,408 in 2014.
June is a good time to add the new flight, Aral said, because traffic increases then as Cuban-American families take vacations.
Each year, ABC already was adding a summer flight to the Cuban city of Holguin. The company will do so again this year, bringing the weekly total to four flights from Tampa to Cuba during the summer months.
Aral expects to see overall U.S. travel to Cuba grow in the fall with the easing of restrictions.
“Most of those people still need to go to Cuba in group tours,” she said. “And those take more time to put together.”
Before commercial flights begin landing in Cuba, the airlines must negotiate landing rights there.
The negotiations could include cheaper landing fees and an agreement allowing Cuban planes to land in the U.S.
A U.S. plane that pays $275 in landing fees at Tampa’s airport pays up to $24,000 in Havana.
And Cuban planes are unlikely to land here because they can be seized to pay some of the $14 billion the Cuban government owes in judgments issued by U.S. courts over civil and property claims.
“There is still work to do,” said attorney Martinez. “But everything is on the right path finally.”