Key West to Cuba flights still grounded

Re­quired ap­provals, air­port ca­pac­ity re­main as ob­sta­cles

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - BY CHRIS­TINE AR­MARIO

KEY WEST, FLA. | One of the first sights greet­ing pas­sen­gers at the Key West In­ter­na­tional Air­port is a statue of two fam­i­lies with chil­dren stand­ing around a large, con­crete buoy. “Ninety miles to Cuba,” reads the words etched on the cen­ter­piece.

From that run­way, tourists are closer to Ha­vana than they are to Mi­ami. And decades ago, res­i­dents of this south­ern­most out­post in Florida 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 and it’s un­cer­tain whether it will hap­pen again any time soon.

Two years ago, U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­jec­tion gave Key West the green light to re­sume flights to and from Cuba that had long been sti­fled by a ban on most Amer­i­can travel to the is­land af­ter the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion. Yet not a sin­gle plane has taken off for the is­land since.

“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,”’ air­port 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.”

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 al­to­gether.

Then there’s the is­sue of air­port ca­pac­ity: Cur­rently, Key West is only ap­proved by U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion to process 10 pas­sen­gers and crew fly­ing in from Cuba 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 closed.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Florida’s Key West In­ter­na­tional Air­port and char­ter op­er­a­tors have still not sent a plane to Cuba, more than two years af­ter Key West was granted port-of-en­try sta­tus. Air­port ca­pac­ity is one rea­son cited for the lack of in­ter­est in start­ing flights.

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