Cuba’s Havana Jose MartiAirport is the entry point of choice.
True capitalists are always looking for new ways to expand business, and with the tropical chill there now warming, U.S. business leaders – and the aircraft that carry them – are pointing south to Cuba, that Communist white-beach bastion, and market, seemingly frozen in time.
While the outreach by the Obama administration to improve political and economic relations with the island nation has its share of critics, the chance to expand tourism and to satisfy the hunger for goods and services of Cuba’s 11 million residents has caught the attention of American travelers and businesses.
“There’s pent-up demand and interest among Americans about Cuba,” says David Rimmer, president of JFI Jets, a charter operator with bases in Farmingdale, New York; Long Beach, California; and West Palm Beach, Florida. He believes the recent, well-publicized visit by the Pope further heightened interest in Cuba.
According to Rimmer, “There are few occasions in this business to pioneer a new market. I see Cuba as a huge opportunity.”
As a result, early this year JFI sought and received the necessary approvals from various federal agencies to enable its aircraft to traverse the Florida Straits and alight at Havana’s José Martí International Airport (see photo). To date, JFI has operated three flights into Cuba; it has another three booked and more in the pipeline.
While the flights are quick – it’s just a 250-nm hop from Palm Beach International to José Martí – initiating them has been complicated, though even that glacial effort is thawing as well.
At the moment, licenses to travel there are restricted to a dozen mission categories such as media, cultural exchanges and such – notably, tourism is not among them, but Rimmer and others believe that will change in time. Operators must depart from and return to one of 19 “gateway” airports, of which Palm Beach is one. JFI relies on its passengers to arrange trips through tour operators in part to ensure they qualify. And passengers must complete affidavits attesting to the legality of the trip, which the operator must keep on file for at least five years.
In early October, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) alerted members that recent changes by the federal treasury and commerce departments now allow U.S.-based aircraft operators authorized by theto fly into Cuba to keep their aircraft there on “temporary sojourn” up to seven consecutive days. Previously, aircraft were limited to a single overnight.
The latest revisions also allow, on a case-by-case basis, for export/re-export to Cuba of items “to help ensure the safety of civil aviation and the safe operation of commercial passenger aircraft,” including aircraft parts and components, software and technology related to safety of flight, air traffic control, aviation communications and weather equipment, airport safety equipment and devices used for security screening of passengers and baggage.
And air ambulance and other related emergency medical services for travelers in Cuba are now authorized by general license.
Although Cuba has 10 international airports, Rimmer says that so far all his charter customers wanted to land at Havana only. However, with opportunities expanding to telecommunications and Internet services, and the ability to open bank accounts and offices in Cuba, the capitalist flights and destinations are likely to expand as well.