Cuba Opens: Let the Rush Begin


This week’s announcement that the U.S. will seek to normalize relations with Cuba didn’t so much come out of the clear blue as a dark hole where the topic has been consigned for half a century. It’s just been off the radar so long, that only the aging exiles in Miami have been thinking about it much.

But here we are. Citing help from Pope Francis, the Obama administration announced its intention to establish diplomatic relations and pursue trade ties. Not a full day after the announcement, I got my first e-mail from Jim Parker, announcing he’s got five-day fly-in programs to Cuba already planned. He publishes Caribbean Flying Adventures, a guide to island flying. Of course, he also concedes it’s time to tap the brakes. Unrestricted tourism isn’t approved yet and it’s unclear when it will be. But my bet is that it will come sooner rather than later and in 2015. That could take it off the table as a presidential election issue. (Or keep it on the table if the Republicans challenge this new policy.)

This will be just shy of a seismic event for aviation interests in Cuba, the U.S. and the wider Caribbean. When I was spending those fun June days during the 1990s helping organize GA trips to the Cayman Islands, the tourist bureaus there always dreaded the day when Cuba would open to U.S. travelers. Add the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and a dozen other island destinations to that list. Cuba will be a huge draw. Key West, Miami and all of south Florida will feel it, too.

But I think Cuba could have difficulty dealing with the potential volume of both airline and GA traffic, assuming the latter will be allowed in. I have no reason to believe it won’t, since I’ve flown into Havana via GA and there were plenty of other light aircraft on the ramp at the time, most of Caribbean registry but some N-numbers, too. U.S. pilots have found creative ways around the embargo for years, just not very many of them. (I was there on a press junket.)

Jose Marti airport is a single-runway facility with four terminals that will likely need upgrading if a huge influx of traffic from the U.S. materializes. Canadians and Europeans have been traveling to Cuba for years and in substantial numbers. But U.S. travelers have something those countries don’t: proximity. That could translate to cheap flights-even on-demand charters-out of south Florida. I’d go in a heartbeat.

Two other airports of interest are Varadero on the north coast of Cuba and Cayo Largo del Sur, on a barrier island off the south coast. Varadero has been a hot tourist spot for 25 years, at least, and is heavily overbuilt. I’ve never been, but I’m told the airport is improved and capable, albeit small. You could get there from Key West in a Skyhawk in under an hour. Cuba has but seven other airports scattered the length of the island. If the country welcomes U.S. GA travelers, they’ll probably need major investment to make them work.

At one time, Cuba raised a fair amount of hard currency by charging for overflight permits, but generally not for light GA. We never (or rarely) paid them on our flights to Cayman. We had a good, face-to-face relationship with Cuba’s CAA and they waived the fees in consideration of a good relationship with Cayman.I believe the airlines flying over Cuba to Caribbean destinations still do pay these fees. But if GA becomes a thing in Cuba, I wouldn’t expect to see significant fees since the Cubans will clearly be interested in U.S. dollars from well-heeled Archer drivers in the form of tourism, not user fees. But again, given the sorry state of the Cuban economy, the government could have trouble marshalling the resources to accomodate strong GA demand. (The whole country needs a fresh coat of paint.)

At the moment, we seem to be in the head-explosion phase of developing relations with Cuba, as all the opponents line up to tell us how outraged they are and how important it is to continue an embargo that hasn’t worked during the past 50 years for another 50. Never underestimate the sheer stupidity of American politics. I think the opponents of this policy shift will lose eventully, despite the Republican majority in the new year. The business opportunities for the U.S. in Cuba are simply too strong and the political will too weak to continue the embargo, in my view.

Here’s a New Year’s wish that we’ll be doing stories on GA flying to Cuba. And soon.

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