Tampa officials, groups continue to push for Cuba flights
- Submitted by: manso
- Business and Economy
- 07 / 08 / 2011
By TED JACKOVICS | The Tampa Tribune. Published: July 08, 2011
TAMPA The quest for Tampa International Airport to provide direct flights to Cuba continues weeks after many expected charter flights would have begun, following initiatives the Obama administration outlined in January.
It remains up to the Cuban government to decide when and which U.S. airports will host air service that will be granted landing rights in Cuba, but no one has indicated why plans for the flights have not progressed more quickly.
"I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who began lobbying for Tampa International-Cuba flights in February 2009.
Castor said she urged the Cuban Interest Section, a Cuban government arm that handles some U.S.-Cuba communications in the absence of embassies, to approve island landing rights.
The delay hasn't kept the U.S. Customs and Border Protection from adding to its original list of eight new airports to join airports in Miami, New York and Los Angeles currently allowed to stage Cuban charter flights.
Since March 8, U.S. permission for Cuban charter flights was granted to airports in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, Fort Myers, Houston and Oakland, Ca., but how that affects Tampa International's prospects is unknown since that decision now rests in Cuba.
Two Tampa airport officials, as well as two well-known local representatives, traveled to Washington on April 19 to meet jointly with Chief of Mission of the Cuban Interests Section Jorge Alberto Bolanos to push Tampa's quest.
Tampa International chief executive Joe Lopano and vice president of marketing Chris Minner flew to Washington, D.C., on a commercial flight to meet Bolanos, airport general counsel Gigi Skipper Rechel confirmed.
Al Fox, the founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, which wants to end the U.S. economic embargo toward Cuba, and David Straz, a prominent Tampa businessman and alliance member whose interests include a charter service at the Tampa airport, flew by private jet for the session, Rechel said.
"An excellent meeting was had that advanced TPA's efforts to obtain landing rights," Rechel said.
The airport officials have not yet filed their travel expenses listing the airline and cost of tickets, according to spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan, but documents show the airport paid the alliance $2,239 for partial reimbursements of expenses.
That in "no way covered all of the expenses of the Alliance and Mr. Straz contributed his time and flight costs for this community effort," Rechel said.
Geoghagan said the group presented Bolanos with a flowers. She did not know if other gifts were exchanged.
Since then local groups, including the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the World Trade Center Tampa Bay have continued their longstanding support for improved travel for more than 70,000 Cuban-Americans who live in the nearby area.
The Tampa chamber created a Cuba flights committee, co-chaired by local businessmen Jose Valiente and Jason Busto, to spur the quest for Cuba flights. Their efforts include lobbying opponents to enhanced travel between Cuba and Tampa to reconsider their positions.
Despite local efforts and Obama administration's approval of charter flights, some members of Congress are trying to restrict travel to Cuba.
Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart in late June filed an amendment to the Financial Services Appropriations bill in committee that would return travel policies to more restrictive policies the Bush Administration enacted.
Obama rescinded Bush's rules to restrict travel to close family members for 14 days every three years and to restrict family members' spending to $50 a day.
"The Diaz-Balart amendment would end or severely complicate Tampa and other airports' approvals and restrict travel by religious, educational and cultural exchange groups," Castor said in a June 30 letter to both the chairwoman and ranking member of the subcommittee considering the amendment.
Tampa is on the threshold of "breaking out" in forging international trade relationships and cannot afford a setback the Diaz-Balart amendment would produce, Stephen Michelini, of the World Trade Center Tampa Bay, a member of a global organization that promotes international trade, said in an email to Castor's office.