Tampa charter dropping Cuba flights as commercial service nears
By Paul Guzzo | Times Staff Writer Published: August 9, 2016
TAMPA — The first commercial flights from Tampa to Havana in more than
50 years begin in late October at the earliest but they're already
muscling out at least one local charter company.
Cuba Travel Services will cease operations from Tampa and the future of
the two other local charter companies — Island Travel & Tours and ABC
Charters — remains unclear.
"We don't believe charter companies will be able to compete with the
major carriers," said Michael Zuccato, general manager at Cuba Travel
Services. "We will stop operating charters from Tampa on a scheduled
basis in early September. We're still working on an exact date."
Bill Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours, could not be reached for
comment. Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, said she has no plans
to leave the Tampa market but acknowledges that her company's future is
up in the air after Oct. 31.
The reason: The Cuban government grants landing rights to charters in
six-month increments and issues authorization three months in advance,
Aral said. Flights for the cycle starting in November should have been
authorized by the first of August but they were not, Aral said.
She does not see this as a sign that Cuba is cutting off charters.
Rather, she believes the Cuban government still is figuring out how to
handle the additional traffic from commercial flights — 110 a day to 10
"They just need more time," Aral said. "I'm not worried."
From the start of the travel and trade embargo against Cuba more than
five decades ago through earlier this year, the U.S. government forbade
commercial airlines from flying there. Charter flights filled the void.
When President Obama eased travel restrictions on Cuba in 2011, American
interest in visiting the island nation soared. That year, Tampa
International Airport was granted permission to offer charter flights to
In 2012, more than 41,000 passengers flew from Tampa to Cuba.
The number of passengers increased again after December 2014 when Obama
announced diplomatic relations with the Communist government would be
restored. More than 71,000 passengers flew from Tampa to Cuba in 2015.
The number of charter flights from the Tampa airport also increased from
two each week in 2011 to nine in peak season.
The number will drop to seven with the lost of the two weekly flights by
Cuba Travel Services.
"It comes down to competition," said Frank Reno, president of
Tampa-based Cuba Executive Travel, who organizes tour group trips to Cuba.
"From the day we learned the big carriers would service Cuba, the
question was whether the charters could keep up from a pure economic
standpoint and if enough people want to go to Cuba that both are
needed," Reno said. "If the answer to both is no, I think the charters
unfortunately will be gone."
In June, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it approved
commercial flights to nine Cuban cities — Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo
Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Varadero, Santa Clara and Santiago.
Tampa did not receive any of those.
Then in July, Tampa was among 10 cities awarded Havana flights by the
Transportation Department. Southwest Airlines will provide a daily
flight to Cuba's capital city.
Charter flight tickets from Tampa to Havana cost more than $400.
These charters typically use a Boeing 737-800 for the trip and pay
landing fees of up to $24,000 per flight. The international rate is only
around $400 for the same plane.
Once commercial service to Cuba begin, all flights are expected to be
charged the cheaper standard fee, meaning charters will be able to drop
But ultimately, said Zuccato with Cuba Travel Services, that won't matter.
"The large carriers are competing for a limited number of passengers so
will continue to bring their prices down," he said. "I can't go as low
as they will."
Commercial-flight ticket prices to Havana have not yet been announced.
In one indicator, Miami-based Havana Consulting Group reported recently
that commercial airlines flying out of south Florida could enter the
Havana market at ticket prices of $150 to $250.
Airline tickets to the other Cuban cities will be even cheaper. JetBlue,
for instance, says it will initially operate flights between Fort
Lauderdale and Santa Clara, Camagüey and Holguín for as little as $99.
Commercial flights are also expected to be more popular than charters
because tickets will be available online and frequent flyer miles can be
used in the purchase. Also, baggage is not transferred from connecting
flights through charter services.
Zuccato predicts commercial service from Tampa to Havana will begin by
the end of October or early November. He could have stayed in the local
market until then, he said, but this is typically the slow season for
travel to Cuba so he decided to bow out now.
Cuba Travel Service cut its flights from Los Angeles to Havana at the
end of July.
The company will continue to fly charters from New York and Miami to
Havana at least until commercial service begins, Zuccato said. It could
continue depending on demand.
He will scale back on flights from Miami and New York to Cuba's
secondary cities starting in September.
Cuba Travel Services is transitioning from a fulltime charter operator
by helping commercial airline passengers with visas to Cuba. The company
will also operate as a Cuba tour company, Zuccato said, and if a tour
group wants to book a personal charter flight, he will still provide
ABC's Aral said that if scheduled charter flights to Cuba are not
needed, she will remain in the market in other ways — booking tours,
ground transportation, hotels and meals.
"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," she said with a
laugh. "We'll just go with the flow and make the needed business
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