U.S.-Cuba flights skyrocketing 200%, charter airlines say

By Gerardo Arreola

From the Mexican newspaper La Jornada

CANCÚN, March 29 – Cubans are “bursting” the capacity of flights from the U.S. to Cuba, taking advantage of Barack Obama’s decision to permit them to fly to the island as often as they want, charter operators say.

In the first three months of this year, the increase in flights has been from 150 to 200 percent, compared with the first quarter in 2008, said Armando García, president of Marazul Charters, one of the companies that link both shores of the Straits of Florida.

From Miami alone, about 20,000 passengers flew to Cuba in January. In February, the number was almost 22,000, “and March is skyrocketing and we believe it could reach 24,000,” said García, who last week attended a gathering here of U.S. tour operators and Cuban authorities.

“There is no doubt that this pace will continue,” García added. “I estimate that approximately 300,000 people will travel to the island from Miami this year.”

The reaction of Cubans to the liberalization of travel “has been phenomenal,” says Vivian Mannerud of Airline Brokers, another Miami charter service. “The first quarter was outstanding, with a 100-percent [increase] above what I expected. I don’t know what we’ll do in the summer, because it’s going to be madness.”

According to official reports, 296,000 Cubans living abroad flew to Cuba last year. García believes that about 200,000 went from the United States. The numbers begin to be relevant, because they represent a two-digit proportion in the total number of visitors to the island last year – about 2,400,000.

In the first quarter of this year, between 45 and 50 flights a week took off from Miami to Havana, plus 12 or 13 to the provinces (Camagüey, Cienfuegos, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba). One flight per week originated in New York. The Los Angeles-Miami route operates only during the “high” (busy) season.

It is García’s opinion that, in addition to the flow of Cubans, the number of American citizens traveling to the island with special licenses for cultural, academic and scientific trips is also increasing. The trend is even more noticeable in the reverse: Cuban artists and intellectuals are making increasingly more frequent work trips to the United States.

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