Feds investigating BWI flights to Cuba

It was undoubtedly exciting news: Baltimore would become one of the few spots in the U.S. offering flights to Cuba, a Communist nation largely off-limits to American travelers.

But one critical item had been overlooked: the paperwork.

The Florida travel company that plans direct flights from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Havana is being scrutinized by federal officials for promoting its plans before receiving the necessary approval for charter flights.

"They're licensed to fly out of another city, but not Baltimore," Charles E. Smith, a U.S. Department of Transportation attorney looking into the matter, said Thursday.

Tampa-based Island Travel & Tours Ltd. raised eyebrows at the agency after BWI announced this month that charter flights between Cuba and Baltimore would begin in March. The government is working to determine whether the Nov. 4 announcement violated rules that prevent advertising before charter flight schedules have been authorized, Smith said.

William Hauf, president of Island Travel, said he had just returned Thursday from Cuba and had no knowledge of the federal inquiry. After consulting with Island Travel's attorney, Washington-based Pierre E. Murphy, Hauf said he was confident that none the company's actions were inappropriate.

"We have not done any advertising; the press release was put out by a third party," said Hauf. "Our plans were based on pending DOT approval."

The announcement was made via email by BWI and posted on the airport's website. The same release had also been published on Island Travel's website but was removed Thursday night.

The statement was not an advertisement for flights, said Jonathan Dean, the BWI spokesman who sent out the announcement.

Sky King Inc. — a California-based charter company that partners with Island Travel for its Cuba flights — had also not been made aware of federal scrutiny, according to company President Frank Visconti. He said Sky King has received the necessary approvals to fly to Havana from the U.S. from the federal government and Cuba.

Island Travel is licensed to fly from Tampa to Cuba, according to Department of Transportation records. It has been approved to provide 13 flights with Sky King that originate in Tampa between early November and the end of January.

Hauf said he hoped that the federal government's inquiry into the Baltimore flights would not deter customers from taking the company's Tampa flights, which launched this month.

Organizing travel to Cuba is complicated, but everything had appeared to be in order for Island Travel and BWI.

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 country.

The airport received federal approval from U.S. Customs and Border Protection this year to host passenger charter flights between Maryland and Cuba, Dean said. In July, Island Travel secured landing rights from the Cuban government.

Island Tours is authorized by the federal government to be a carrier and travel service provider, according to an October 2011 document from the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

But Island Travel neglected to file a "public charter prospectus" — in essence, a flight schedule required for all charter flights, regardless of their destination.

Under federal regulations, "no charter operator shall operate, sell, receive money from any prospective participant for, or offer to sell or otherwise advertise a charter or series of charters until" the Department of Transportation accepts the prospectus.

The company will file an amended charter flight schedule Friday that will include the flights planned for Baltimore, said Hauf, who is optimistic that the filing will not push back the company's plans to start flying from Baltimore to Havana in 41/2 months.

No tickets have been sold, no money collected and no advertising — aside from the Nov. 4 announcement — has taken place, said Hauf. Still, he wishes he'd filed the prospectus sooner.

"We hope this won't delay anything, as a result of this misunderstanding," said Hauf. "The truth is, I should have been more cautious."

Smith, the Department of Transportation attorney, would not discuss potential penalties if the agency determines any advertising rules were violated.

In mid-August, the agency fined a company for violating the agency's rules governing charter flight advertising in 2009. According to an agency statement, Atlanta-based Aviation Advantage Inc. was fined $150,000 for several violations, including promoting flights "without listing the name of the charter operator or the airline operating the flights, as required by DOT rules."

Travel to Cuba from the U.S. has been restricted since 1961, soon after Fidel Castro took power and nationalized American businesses on the island.

Cities that now offer flights to Cuba include New York, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago and Tampa.

The Island Travel flights from Baltimore will operate at fixed times on Wednesdays and will take about three hours and 15 minutes, said Hauf. Because of complicated ticketing requirements and hefty charges to land in Cuba, a round-trip ticket to Cuba will cost about $800, he estimated.

Hauf said he expects the flights from Baltimore to mainly serve diplomats, nonprofit organizations and academics. Maryland does not have a large Cuban-American population like that of other metro areas currently served by charter flights to Cuba.

Earlier this month, Dean said that the Island Travel flights would apparently be the first nonstop service ever between BWI and Havana. The airport has no record of scheduled service before Castro came to power, he said.

About a decade ago, charter flights between the cities were exchanged when the Orioles played Cuba's national baseball team.