Charter service to Cuba planned from Pittsburgh International Airport
September 9, 2016 9:41 PM
By Mark Belko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As little as a year ago, a nonstop flight to Cuba from Pittsburgh would
have been the stuff of pipe dreams. Now it may be just months away from
Miami-based Choice Aire intends to begin twice-weekly charter service to
Cuba from Pittsburgh International Airport later this year. Officials
with the charter airline are expected to be in Pittsburgh Tuesday to
formally make the announcement, said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the
Allegheny County Airport Authority.
The date for the start of the charter service has not been determined,
as Choice Aire is still awaiting formal approval for the flights from
the Cuban government. Ms. Cassotis said the airline hopes to start the
service before the end of the year.
No details were available on ticket prices or scheduling.
As far as anyone can remember, it would be the first time Pittsburgh has
had a flight to the Caribbean island, even predating the 1960 travel
embargo as relations between the two countries deteriorated following
Fidel Castro's rise to power.
Ms. Cassotis said Choice Aire now operates flights into Cuba from Miami
and is looking to expand its reach, with Pittsburgh being one of the
markets it has its eye on. Choice will use Boeing 737-400 aircraft for
the flights from Pittsburgh.
"[The flight's] good news for the region. We think it is an opportunity
to watch a market grow and to capture the existing travel we know is
going out of here because of the universities, the cultural
institutions, and people who have interest. Now they can just go right
from Pittsburgh, as opposed to having to connect over another point,"
Ms. Cassotis said. "It's a big deal."
Choice Aire officials could not be reached for comment.
Phoenix-based Swift Airlines will serve as the operator for Choice.
Founded in 1997, Swift provides business and commercial jets for charter
and business use.
The Allegheny County Airport Authority, which operates Pittsburgh
International, has been talking to Choice for more than a year about
starting the service.
Although Choice is not considered a commercial carrier, the flights to
Cuba will be open to anyone who has an approved visa for travel to the
communist country, according to Bryan Dietz, the authority's vice
president of air service development.
"There really is no difference from a consumer perspective," he said.
Like many charter carriers, Choice offers full travel packages,
including hotels and meals, to those who book. Mr. Dietz said it is
similar in some respects to Apple Vacations or Vacation Express.
Pittsburgh International was designated by the federal government in
2011 as one of 19 airports in the country authorized to allow nonstop
flights to Cuba.
The U.S. eased travel restrictions to the island earlier this year,
making it possible for airlines to fly regularly scheduled commercial
flights there for the first time in decades. Some of those flights are
just starting, although charter services have been available in the past.
For Americans to travel to Cuba, the trip must fall within one of 12
categories, including academic programs or professional research, visits
with relatives, religious activities, journalistic purposes, and
involvement in sports or public performances. "People to People" visits,
or trips to meet ordinary Cubans, also are permitted.
Standard tourism is still off limits.
Jeff Whitehead, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Study Abroad
Office, said a charter service to Cuba from the airport would be "very
appealing" if the departure and return flights were on weekends.
Pitt typically takes groups of 10 to 15 students to Cuba two to three
times a year, usually during spring break or the summer.
"It would be very convenient for students and faculty to leave from
Pittsburgh instead of having to shuttle to Miami, Fort Lauderdale or New
York," he said.
"It would be good news for us. Any expansion of routes from Pittsburgh
is good news for us."
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262.
First Published September 9, 2016 12:43 PM
Source: Charter service to Cuba planned from Pittsburgh International
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