Airline service to Cuba has been a big success at Tampa International Airport. Charter flights carried nearly 37,000 passengers from Tampa to Cuba last year, an increase of 65 percent since 2012. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and other business groups and political leaders from the area have all visited Cuba, seeking ways to increase partnerships with the island nation. Now, a couple of major airlines have applied to add daily flights to Havana from Tampa International.
Recent changes in the relationship between Cuba and the United States means that commercial flights from the U.S. will land in Cuba for the first time in decades. The U.S. Department of Transportation opened submissions for planned routes last month after U.S. and Cuban officials signed a deal to revive the flights. Regulators will only approve 20 daily flights to Havana and will allow as many as 90 more flights to other Cuban cities. A dozen airlines had submitted applications to the Department of Transportation by late Wednesday.
JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines both have applied to run flights between Cuba and Tampa out of Tampa International Airport. Southwest wants to begin twice daily flights serving 175 seats. JetBlue has applied for twice daily flights with 162 seats. The plans were announced at the regular board meeting of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. Final decisions are expected this summer, and airlines will have three months to get service started.
Tampa’s traffic to Cuba is the second-largest among all U.S. gateways behind Miami. Cuban ancestry represents one-fifth of Tampa’s Hispanic population, totaling nearly 170,000 Cubans. Tampa currently supports service by three carriers via charters to three Cuban destinations. There are up to nine weekly flights and 1,330 weekly seats to Cuba on charters by American Airlines, JetBlue and Xtra Airways. Currently, the airport’s annual revenue from Cuban air traffic exceeds $1 million.
Tampa International officials believe that the airport will make the cut, due to the region’s big Cuban population and the success of chartered flights to the island. Between 2012 and 2015, there has been a 65 percent increase in TIA-Cuba passenger traffic. Revenue from these flights has been growing rapidly at approximately 18 percent a year.