Posted on Tuesday, 11.26.13
Key West to Cuba flights struggle to take off
BY CHRISTINE ARMARIO
KEY WEST, Fla. -- One of the first sights greeting passengers at the Key
West International Airport is a statue of two families with children
standing around a large, concrete buoy. "Ninety miles to Cuba," reads
the words etched on the centerpiece.
From that runway, tourists are closer to Havana than they are to Miami.
And decades ago, residents of this southernmost outpost in Florida could
fly to Cuba for lunch and be back in time for dinner.
It's only a short flight across the Florida Straits, once crisscrossed
regularly. But that hasn't happened since 1960 and it's uncertain
whether it will happen any time soon.
Two years ago, U.S. Customs and Border Projection gave Key West the
green light to resume flights to and from Cuba that had long been
stifled by a ban on most American travel to the island after the Cuban
Revolution. Yet not a single plane has taken off for the island since.
"Several organizations have approached us, including airlines, and said,
'If you get status as a port of entry for Cuba, we sure are interested
in flying to Cuba,'" Key West International Airport director Peter
Horton said. "And so far all of those — and there are at least four that
I can remember offhand — have not been successful."
Charter flight companies and booking agencies say they've struggled to
get all the required approvals from U.S. and Cuban authorities. One of
the charter companies that initially was taking part in the airport's
application has gone out of business. Another stopped service to Florida
Then there's the issue of airport capacity: Currently, Key West is only
approved by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process 10 passengers
and crew flying in from Cuba at any one time. The airport is working on
an expansion that would eventually allow it to process about 70.
"If you would have a 30-seater, or a 25-seater that could do flights,
that could be a profitable operation," said John Cabanas, former
president of C&T Charters, which initially wanted to do the flights but
has since closed.
Key West and Cuba have a long and intertwined history. So when President
Barack Obama announced in 2011 that he was directing agencies to allow
all U.S. international airports to apply to allow licensed charters to
operate Cuba flights, Key West was among the first to apply.
There are now 19 U.S. airports authorized to provide flights to the
Caribbean nation, which has had limited diplomatic relations with the
U.S. since shortly after the 1959 revolution. Under Obama, travel to
Cuba has increased. U.S. citizens can once again apply for so-called
people-to-people licenses, which encourage cultural and educational
exchanges. Cuban-Americans also have returned to visit the island in
Cuban officials have said they receive as many as 500,000 visitors from
the United States annually, most of those Cuban-Americans visiting
The majority depart from big cities like Miami and New York. But Key
West has long held a special place in the story of U.S. and Cuba relations.
Cuban poet and independence leader Jose Marti visited Key West to rally
support from the island's large and wealthy Cuban population in 1892. He
spoke to workers in the island's many cigar factories and at the San
Carlos Institute, a stately building that still proudly hangs a large
Cuban flag from its balcony.
The first flight ever to depart from the island left en route to Havana,
as did the first commercial Pan American Airlines plane in 1928. And
there were once daily ferries.
That history is still palpable today. Locals boast Key West has at least
20 Cuban coffee shops and just one Starbucks.
Nance Frank, director of a Key West art gallery, was born and raised on
the Florida island and recalls how she learned the Cuban national anthem
before the Florida one. "I can still sing it," she said gleefully.
Unlike Miami 160 miles to the north, there tends to be less contention
about Cuba in Key West. Exchanges between the two have flourished.
Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad has been celebrated here after recently
becoming the first woman to swim across the Straits without a shark cage.
"There's been a move from the people of Key West for many, many years to
reconnect the two islands," city commissioner Tony "Fat" Yaniz said.
Still, there are moments of tension. A city move to bring Cuban
diplomats to lay a wreath at a statue of Jose Marti in the San Carlos
Institute earlier this year drew a heavy rebuke. The institute's
director is opposed to resuming flights to Havana, as well.
"It's very insulting for people to use my heritage to say that they are
promoting Cuban history and Cuban heritage when in fact all they want is
Cubans' money with no concern for a political opening in Cuba," said
Rafael Penalver, president of the San Carlos Institute's board of directors.
But Horton, the airport director, said he hasn't fielded any calls from
islanders angry about flights.
"We aren't breaking new ground here," Horton said. "This isn't the first
airline flight to Cuba. Hundreds of people go back and forth to Cuba
every day in Miami."
In October, it appeared the flights were just around the corner.
Mambi International Group, a travel agency, teamed up with charter
operator Air Marbrisa Airlines to operate a flight. Mambi executive
Isaac Valdes said the flights would be set to depart Nov. 15.
But one week before, Bob Curtis, the head of Air Marbrisa, wrote to
Horton to say flights were being delayed. He said Mambi had failed to
obtain a required certificate from the Department of Transportation.
Curtis set the new date of departure as Dec. 15. He declined to comment
when reached by phone.
Horton said companies have also faced delays with Cuban authorities. One
interested charter agency said it had applied to the Office of Foreign
Assets Control over two years ago and was still awaiting approval.
Robert Valle, president of Florida AeroCharter, Inc., said he checks in
periodically, including just three months ago.
Valle said he was told all the company's documents were complete and
were being processed.
"In other words, 'Don't call us, we'll call you,'" Valle said. "Pretty
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