XAEL Charters Inc. will discontinue its Tampa-Havana flights on Feb. 14, and ABC Charters Tampa-Holguin flights will cease on Feb. 28. Both companies are based in South Florida.
The reduction of flights is disappointing for the airport and for those who support legal U.S. to Cuba travel, which is currently restricted to Americans who have family members in Cuba, as well as for journalists, academics and people on humanitarian missions. Others have long found ways around the prohibition, often entering Cuba from Mexico or Canada.
One of the leading advocates for enhancing economic relations between the U.S. and the Communist Island, Al Fox, said he's not surprised to hear about the reduction in flights.
"I'm not surprised at all," he told CL Wednesday morning. "Last fall I was telling a lot of people that. And I called several reporters that wrote articles saying that Tampa was now the second largest city in the U.S. after Miami of travelers to Cuba. What they did not take into account is that a lot of those travelers were repeat travelers, because of the novelty of it."
Fox also disputed the notion that most of the flights to Cuba were packed.
"None of those flights — with one or two exceptions — were ever at capacity. None. They were never full. A lot of them said they were full. Now they admit they weren't," he said. "Even a tertiary study would show that Tampa could not sustain seven flights a week, just with Cuban-Americans."
For years, Fox has made it his life's mission to ultimately end the U.S. economic embargo against the Castro-led government. He fears that for those not paying attention closely, it will appear that the flight reductions have something to do with the Cuban government.
"I don't want that to happen. For this policy to change, we need more people to travel to Cuba to see themselves that it's not North Korea, like Iran, it's just not," he said.
On Monday, travel laws changed in Cuba: now, travelers only need a valid passport to visit other nations. Previously, Cubans had to pay $150 for an exit visa, and a resident they were planning to visit in another country would have to write a letter of invitation. Fees associated with that letter could run as high as $200. A recent Fox News Latino story cited 15 countries that Cubans can travel to without a visa: Hungary, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia, Barbados, Liechtenstein, Malasia, Granada, Saint Cristobal and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Moldavia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Last week, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that Cuba's exit permit was a "major impediment for Cubans seeking to travel overseas" and applauded the Cuban government's decision to remove it. She added that "U.S. visa policy ... remains unchanged. Cuban citizens still require a valid U.S. visa or entry authorization to enter the United States."
According to a Tampa Tribune story by Ted Jackovics, "Tampa International reported 39,736 passengers on Cuba flights between Sept. 8, 2011, when the first flight in 50 years between Havana and Tampa took off, and Aug. 31."
Fox praised Tampa International Airport Director Joe Lopano for getting the Cuban flights, saying Lopano's lunch with the Cuban ambassador to the U.S. was successful because it was about business.
"He made an unbelievably powerful and articulate presentation to the ambassador about why these flights were important, and he never mentioned Cuban-Americans," he said.
He also praised Congresswoman Kathy Castor, but said her whole pitch was about Cuban-Americans.
"Business for the Tampa area should have nothing to do with Cuban-Americans, Haitian-Americans, or anyone else. It is what is best for Tampa. That is the business model we need," he said.
He added that local officials need to push Washington to continue to loosen the rules to allow more Americans to travel to Cuba.
CL attempted to contact ABC Charters on Wednesday, but was unsuccessful.