First direct regular flight for Havana leaves BWI Wednesday, Steve Schuh aboard

Anne Arundel's Schuh leading county delegation to Cuba from BWI.

Wednesday afternoon, a group of Marylanders -- among them Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, a Hollywood producer and Baltimore’s best-known veterinarian -- will take the first regular charter flight from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Jose Marti International Airport in Cuba.

Schuh will lead a delegation of county officials on the four-day trip, and he’s expected to meet the acting U.S. ambassador, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, at the recently reopened embassy in Havana.

“The opening of a direct flight from BWI to Havana is a key advantage that businesses in our metropolitan area will have in accessing Cuban markets,” Schuh noted in a statement scheduled to be released Tuesday.

Wednesday’s flight will be the first in a new, regular schedule of twice-weekly trips to Cuba.

Despite restrictions on American travel since our long chill with Havana began during the height of the Cold War, there have been a few special charter flights over the years. The Orioles flew to Cuba in 1999, for instance, and a group of volunteers left from BWI on a mission to build playgrounds for Cuban children in 2003. Last month, there was a flight just for American officials who followed Secretary of State John Kerry to Havana for the official reopening of the embassy.

But Wednesday, for the first time, Swift Air will fly out of BWI with passengers who purchased tickets through Island Travel & Tours, a Florida-based company whose president, Bill Hauf, has been bullish on getting Americans to Cuba for years.

“There has never been regular scheduled service from BWI [to Cuba],” Hauf says.

Until now.

Wednesday’s trip will not be a special charter. Anyone can purchase a ticket, as long as they have a reason to visit Cuba other than tourism. President Obama might have restored diplomatic relations with Havana, and Kerry might have been the first secretary of state to travel there since 1945, but there are still restrictions; you can’t say you’re going as a tourist. You need to have some other stated purpose.

“Family reasons, education, religious organizations, journalism, government activities, non-governmental organizations, research, artistic performances — these are all travel activities that are allowed,” says Jonathan Dean, spokesman for BWI. “There are many university groups, nonprofits, religious organizations, government employees, non-governmental organizations and charities in the Baltimore-Washington region that can take advantage of the charter flights from BWI.”

So far, not many have.

On Friday, Hauf said he was disappointed with ticket sales -- only “30 or so” tickets had been purchased for the first flight. That’s about 100 short of full. The company runs charters out of three Florida airports; it announced its Havana plans for BWI in May.

I asked Hauf if his company had advertised this week’s $695 round-trip fare, and he mentioned promotions with iHeartRadio and WTOP, the all-news radio station that serves the Washington area. That’s not exactly saturating the market; lack of notice might explain the lack of interest in the inaugural flight to date.

Schuh’s announcement might give ticket sales a boost.

Also making the trip is the Baltimore-based “veterinarian to the stars,” Kim Hammond.

A frequent international traveler -- usually for some kind of mission to save animals or ecosystems -- Hammond has made several trips to Cuba already. “It’s a beautiful country, an amazing country,” he says. “The people are literate, they are smart. I’ve just enjoyed the people, their entrepreneurship, how they just keep things going.”

This time the Falls Road vet, who has traveled in fast company over the years, will be part of a group interested in opening an American door to film and entertainment in Castro country. Among his traveling companions will be David Robinson, the president of Morgan Creek Productions, a Baltimore native and McDonough School graduate, and an accomplished cinematographer based in Baltimore, Roy Heisler. They’ve been invited to a workshop at a Cuban film school.

This will be Hammon’s third trip to Cuba with Robinson. Heisler has been there already, too. Hammond says they’ve made the trips to express interest in helping Cuba’s filmmakers. “We go there to create, not violate trust,” Hammond says. “We want to promote intellectual curiosity in a collaborative way.”

Beyond the film opportunities, Hammond spoke of an array of projects awaiting Americans interested in one day doing business in Cuba. “The people have little food, they have agricultural challenges,” he says. “For an island nation, they don’t harvest much fish. . . . Maybe we help them tell their story to the media, the world. Maybe we help them develop ecotourism, and the skill sets they need for customer service.”

But the main focus of this week’s trip is to develop contacts and explore possibilities in film. Hammond’s group returns Oct. 4. Schuh’s delegation returns one day earlier.

 Cuba -- I want to go to there. 

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