TIA landing Southwest flight to Havana

July 8, 2016

Frances McMorris | Tampa Bay Business Journal

Tampa International Airport could start daily commercial nonstop service to Havana by the end of this year via a flight by Southwest Airlines.

Dallas-based Southwest (NYSE: LUV) was one of eight U.S. airlines to begin scheduled flights to Havana as early as this fall, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Thursday. The DOT’s decision is not final. Objections to the tentative decision are due by July 22.

Even so, on its twitter account, TIA crowed: “Tampa to Havana is here! @SouthwestAir is offering daily nonstop service to Cuba!”

“This is such an exciting day for us,” said Joe Lopano, the CEO of Tampa International. “The DOT’s decision reflects the strength of our market and the unprecedented support of leaders and travelers throughout the Tampa Bay area. Our community provided a solid and consistent voice in this most recent proceeding, with dozens of letters filed in the docket in support of commercial flights from Tampa to Havana and nearly 6,000 people signing an on-line petition in support of the flights.”

Lopano thanked U.S. Rep Kathy Castor for advocating for the flights between Tampa and Havana, Cuba.

The DOT said Thursday that it was proposing to select eight U.S. airlines to begin scheduled flights between Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York City, Orlando, and Tampa and Havana as early as this fall.

The airlines receiving the tentative awards are Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and United Airlines.

Southwest had applied for flights twice daily serving 175 seats while New York-based JetBlue (NASDAQ: JBLU) had applied for twice daily flights with 162 seats. The two airlines were the only ones applying for flights out of Tampa from the 12 carriers across the country that had applied for daily flights to Havana to fill 20 available slots. Currently, TIA conducts charter flights to Havana and three other Cuban cities: Santa Clara, Camagüey and Holguín.

JetBlue, while not getting a Tampa-Havana route, still announced that the DOT had tentatively approved flights for the carrier between Havana and three other U.S. cities: JFK International Airport in New York (once daily); Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood (up to twice daily); and Orlando International Airport (once daily.)

In a statement on its website, Southwest confirmed that it has been preliminarily awarded authority to serve Havana with twice daily nonstop service from Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and once daily nonstop service from Tampa Bay International Airport.

“Pending finalized authority from DOT and subject to requisite approvals from the Cuban government, Southwest confirms it will begin its Cuba service later this year to Havana (HAV), along with previously awarded service to Varadero (VRA) and Santa Clara (SNU),” the carrier said. Southwest said it will have a total of five daily departures from Ft. Lauderdale (Miami Area) to Cuba—two to Havana, two to Varadero, and one to Santa Clara—plus one daily departure from Tampa to Havana.

“These nonstop flights from two of our Florida focus cities will provide high-quality, low-fare service to our customers while also offering convenient connections to Cuba for dozens of U.S. cities across the Southwest network,” said Southwest Chairman, President and CEO Gary Kelly.

In March, Southwest filed its application with the DOT to begin daily nonstop flights from the carrier’s three busiest airports in Florida. Following the initial application on March 2, 2016, Southwest received more than 120 letters of support from local, regional, and national organizations, including the Tampa Bay Partnership. The carrier also launched an online petition called “Countdown to Cuba” in an effort to win the Tampa-Havana route.

DOT’s proposal allocates nonstop Havana service to areas of substantial Cuban-American population, as well as to important aviation hub cities. Tampa Bay is home to the third largest Cuban-American population in the country, with Cuban ancestry representing one-fifth of Tampa’s Hispanic population.

Currently, TIA’s annual revenue from Cuban air traffic exceeds $1 million. It stood at $1.13 million in 2015 up from $970,000 the year before. Tampa’s traffic to Cuba is the second-largest among all U.S. gateways behind Miami and has been growing at approximately 18 percent a year, according to the airport’s statistics. Between 2012 and 2015, there has been a 65 percent increase in TIA-Cuba passenger traffic, reaching nearly 37,000 passengers last year.

The majority, or 80 percent, of TIA’s existing traffic to Cuba is to Havana.

The DOT said that it wanted to give the U.S. passengers “a wide array of travel choices in the type of airline (network, low-cost, ultra-low-cost); choices of airport; and choices of non-stop or connecting service.”

On February 16, 2016, Secretary Anthony Foxx and Department of State Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs Charles Rivkin signed an arrangement with their Cuban counterparts opening the way for scheduled air service between the two countries to resume after more than 50 years. At the time of the signing, the administration announced that scheduled service would begin later in 2016.

Under the arrangement, each country may operate up to 20 daily round-trip flights between the U.S. and Havana. The arrangement also provides each country with the opportunity to operate up to 10 daily round-trip flights between the U.S. and each of Cuba’s nine international airports, other than Havana, for a total of 90 daily round-trips. DOT announced the approval of six U.S. airlines’ applications to serve cities other than Havana on June 10.

“Cuba is our closest foreign neighbor and to build a relationship going forward we need dependable, regular air travel,” said Joni James, the CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. She called the Southwest flight “a real game changer” adding, “I’m assuming flights will only increase over time.”

James has been to Cuba twice. She said that Tampa Bay has taken full advantage of the existing charter flights to Cuba to the point where some are so full, prospective travelers can’t get to the island-nation.

The Partnership has been trying to attract a Cuban consulate to St. Petersburg.

“We’re trying to position St. Pete to take full advantage of changing rules as they happen,” James said. She went to Cuba with several local leaders last October and again during President Obama’s historic trip in March that included the baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the National Cuban baseball team. The Partnership also hosted administrative officials from Cuba last December.

“There’s still some comment period but this is validation that Tampa Bay belongs in this conversation,” James said.

Today’s tentative decision from the DOT comes nearly one year after the United States and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations in July 2015, the DOT said. The initiative is part of President Barack Obama’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba.

A dozen U.S. airlines applied for the chance to operate scheduled passenger and cargo service to Havana. The airlines applied for nearly 60 flights per day to Havana, exceeding the 20 daily flights made available by arrangement between the U.S. and Cuban governments.