BWI flights to Cuba to start in March

A Tampa-based company plans to begin offering flights next spring from BWI-Marshall Airport to Cuba, where travel has been restricted since 1961, shortly after Fidel Castro took power and nationalized U.S.-owned businesses.

But visitors shouldn't count on buying tickets solely to explore the island's beaches.

"You cannot go to Cuba for what they call tourism," said William Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours Ltd., which announced plans for the flights Friday.

The Island Travel trips are considered charters, though they will operate at fixed times on Wednesdays much like scheduled airline flights. And federal rules limit passengers to "purposeful" travel, including family visits by Cuban-Americans and trips for religious, cultural, academic, journalistic and professional reasons, or for business that is exempt from the long-standing U.S. trade embargo on the Communist country.

News of the new charter service brought a mixed reaction in Baltimore's Cuban-American community. Marta Ines Quintana, owner and chef for Havana Road restaurant in Towson, said she would not travel to Cuba.

"Would I board one of those flights? Absolutely not," said Quintana, who was born in Cuba. "I'm glad things are opening up for my country, but how many of these dollars will go to the people of Cuba? Probably zero."

North Baltimore resident Xiomara Mason, who was born in New York but lived in Cuba for about five years during childhood, takes a different view. She hopes the BWI charters will increase the number of exempt travelers — like missionaries, politicians and academics — going to Cuba.

"The more we isolate the people [of Cuba], the less they're going to know about freedom and democracy," Mason said. "I think [communism] could melt away there, the more the people have knowledge."

Hauf expects robust interest in the three-hour, 15-minute flights from BWI. He said the company, which has been organizing travel to Cuba for more than a decade, has seen strong interest from Maryland universities. There has also been strong demand from Catholic church groups and from Jews seeking to visit Havana's synagogues and maintain ties with that city's small but vibrant Jewish community, he said.

Both Catholic Relief Services, based in Baltimore, and the Bethesda Jewish Congregation regularly perform aid work in Cuba.

"There have been occasional study trips to Cuba over the years," said Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for the Johns Hopkins University. "So it is possible that service from BWI would be a convenience for some Johns Hopkins travel, but I couldn't really predict how much it would be used."

Prospective travelers to Cuba can expect to jump through more hoops than those flying from BWI to such tourist destinations as London and Cancun. Hauf said American citizens will have to secure Cuban visas, some categories of which his company can supply. Others, particularly group travel, may require an application at the Cuban Interests Section or consulate in Washington, he said.

Americans traveling to Cuba also will need a license from the U.S. Treasury Department, he said. In some cases, that license can be obtained by signing an affidavit stating the purpose of the visit. However, he said, travelers are expected to maintain a full itinerary of so-called purposeful activities during the trip.

Hauf said that when travelers to Cuba come to BWI they can expect multiple check-ins and document verifications before boarding. He explained that the airline can face heavy fines if a passenger arrives in Havana without the documents in order.

Because of the complicated requirements and hefty charges to land in Cuba, tickets aboard the Havana flights will not be cheap, Hauf said. He estimated the cost of a round-trip ticket at about $800, an amount he said would be comparable to the cost of flying to Florida and taking a charter from there.

The Island Travel flights are a further expansion of BWI's menu of international services — still a weak spot for the airport despite its robust domestic growth. On Thursday, BWI added Freeport, Bahamas, as a twice-weekly destination aboard Vision Airlines. AirTran service to Aruba will start in a few weeks, and Germany's Condor Airlines has announced plans for twice-a-week flights to Frankfurt next year.

"This new charter service will be a good opportunity for many organizations that were looking for this direct service to Cuba," said BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean.

Hauf said flights will leave Havana on Wednesday mornings and depart from BWI at midafternoon the same day. Travelers who want to leave Cuba on another day of the week will be able to catch a flight to Florida and switch to a domestic carrier for the return to Baltimore.

The planes themselves will be operated by Island Travel's partner, Sky King Inc., which will supply the crews and baggage handlers, Hauf said.

Hauf does not expect the flights from BWI to be packed with people visiting relatives, as are flights out of Florida and New York. Just over 10,000 people in Maryland — about 0.2 percent of the state's population — identified themselves in the 2010 census as being ethnically Cuban.

Quintana, the Havana Road owner, said she promised her father that she would not return to Cuba as long as a communist regime was in power, even though she has many family members living there.

"I cannot condone [travel to Cuba] until my country is free," Quintana said.

Alicia Giro, who has been in the U.S. for about 50 years and worked for three decades in the Baltimore County public schools, agreed with Quintana's sentiment that missionaries should not pursue travel to Cuba until communism ends there.

"They want to do good and they want to go there, and then they see that there are all of these restrictions," Giro said. "Everything is controlled. People here are very naive. There is no freedom and no human rights."

But Mason said she has many Cuban relatives whom she has not seen since the early 1960s. She would relish the opportunity to see them, she said, if she could afford the cost and if her stay would not be a burden on them.

Island Travel first sought permission to operate charters to Havana during the Clinton administration in 2000, Hauf said. But the company dropped the effort after President George W. Bush came into office and ended a brief thaw in Cuban-American relations, he said.

The company renewed efforts to gain approval as a charter operator after President Obama took office and secured landing rights from the Cuban government in July. Hauf said Island Travel would offer its first charter flight Sunday from Tampa, Fla. He said Baltimore will be the second city where it operates.

In March, the company will operate from the only gateway to Havana between Atlanta and New York. Hauf expects strong demand from the Washington area with its many diplomats, government officials, universities and journalists.

As demand increases, his company expects to add more flights. "Our goal is to have a minimum of two," he said.

Dean said the flights will apparently be the first nonstop service ever between BWI and Cuba's capital. He said the airport has no record of scheduled service in the pre-Castro days. There was an exchange of charter flights between the cities about a decade ago when the Orioles played Cuba's national baseball team.

The spokesman would not speculate on whether hosting the charter operation would give BWI a leg up on scheduled service if Washington and Havana were to normalize relations.

"It's a little premature to say that," he said.