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12/04/13 - Florida Keys Keynoter - Despite OK, Key WestCuba flights still a dream

Key West International Airport gained approval two years ago to begin
operating flights to and from Cuba that had long been stifled by a ban on
most U.S. travel to the island. Since then, not a single plane has taken
off for Cuba from Florida's southernmost outpost, closer to Havana than to

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

"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 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."

Decades ago, Key West residents 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.

There's the issue of airport capacity: Currently, Key West is approved by
U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process only a combined 10 passengers
and crew flying in from Jose Marti International Airport 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

Key West and Cuba have a long and intertwined history. So when President
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 rising

Cuban officials have said they receive as many as 500,000 visitors from the
United States annually, most of those Cuban-Americans visiting relatives.
The majority departs 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 on Duval Street 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.

In October, it appeared the flights were just around the corner.

Mambi International Group, a travel agency, teamed 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 U.S. Department of Transportation. Curtis set
the new date of departure as Dec. 15. He declined to comment when reached
by phone.

One interested charter agency said it had applied to the U.S. Treasury
Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control more than 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 being
processed. "In other words, 'Don't call us, we'll call you,'" Valle said.
"Pretty frustrating."

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