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Fort Lauderdale may soon offer scheduled charter flight service to Cuba again.

Just weeks after one charter operator ceased service, another is looking to take its place — possibly as soon as next month, airport officials confirmed on Friday.

Miami-based Xael Charters told Tampa authorities this week that they are ending service in Tampa in mid-February and plan to start weekly flights from Fort Lauderdale instead. Fort Lauderdale authorities said a charter company has expressed interest in Cuba service but did not disclose further information.

The shift comes after Coral Gables-based Airline Brokers Co. ended Cuba service from Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 25. Havana had suspended Airline Brokers' landing rights after a broader evaluation of U.S. flight services to Cuba, according to the company's web site and its president Vivian Mannerud.

Charter executives say the changes follow smaller-than-expected demand for U.S.-Cuba flights after the Obama administration in 2009 allowed Cuban-Americans unlimited travel to the island, and in 2011, authorized more U.S. airports to offer Cuba charters. Too many companies entered the charter market and then waged a price war for limited passengers, leaving most operations unprofitable.

"The charter market is a challenge. It is very difficult," said Bill Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours, which offers two flights a week from Tampa to Cuba but has delayed startup of Baltimore-to-Cuba service because of insufficient demand.

Cuba service planned from Atlanta, New York, Dallas and San Juan in Puerto Rico also has been delayed or, in some cases, halted for financial reasons. In November, Havana also suspended the landing rights for Miami-based C&T Charters, reportedly for delays in payment amid the price war.

Indeed, it remains unclear if Xael will be able to profit on weekly service from Fort Lauderdale.

Both Hauf and Mannerud have said it's better to offer two flights a week to Cuba from any single airport, because many passengers like to go for three to four days. Once-a-week service means that passengers will need to fly one part of their trip on a different carrier – a move that costs the charter company issuing the ticket as much as $135 per passenger in fees, in some cases.

Xael was not available for comment as of Friday afternoon.

Tampa International Airport handled about 40,000 passengers to Cuba in 2012, its first full year offering charter service to the island, said spokeswoman Janet Zink. At its peak, Tampa offered five flights a week to Cuba — more than the three flights a week offered from Fort Lauderdale last year.

Miami International Airport continues to dominate the limited charter business. It handled 335,000 passengers to Cuba in 2011, up 5 percent from 2010, according to the latest available full-year data.

The five-decade-old U.S. embargo on Cuba restricts most U.S. business with communist-led Cuba, including Americans' spending U.S. dollars on the island in most cases. Americans can visit Cuba and spend there in select cases such as educational, religious and "people-to-people" tours, but U.S. Treasury officials have been cautious about granting licenses, disappointing many charter operators.

Source: Sun

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