Florida Keys News
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Historic flight between Key West and Havana on radar screen

A local travel agency plans to conduct this month the first commercial flight from Key West to Cuba in more than 50 years, but there are still a few hurdles to overcome before that happens, a senior airport official said.

Mambi Travel executives plan to fly nine passengers on a small commuter plane between Key West International Airport and Havana on Nov. 15, Mambi sales executive Issac Valdes said.

The group plans to offer the flight three days a week -- Monday, Wednesday and Friday -- at cost of between $449 and $469 round trip, Valdes said.

The group does have an agreement with the Cuban government and a license with the Cuban travel agency Havanatur, Valdes said.

On Tuesday, Mambi secured the plane it plans to use to shuttle people back and forth from Cuba, Valdes said. But the group has yet to secure an agreement with the airport's fixed base operators, Island City Flying Service, Monroe County Airports Director Peter Horton said.

Mambi, and its air carrier, Air Marbrisas, will not be flying out of the main terminal because the group has not submitted a security plan with local representatives of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Horton said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection and airport officials are still waiting to see copies of the proper U.S. Department of Treasury licenses, Horton said. Valdes claims that Mambi does have all of the proper licenses.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not yet cleared them to operate," Horton said Tuesday. "There still is a lot of work to be done in a short period of time."

Horton remained cautiously optimistic. Mambi executives will be at the airport later this week to present all the documents and licenses, they told him this week.

Mambi is in the process of setting up a travel agency office in the old Cuban bakery building on White Street in Key West, Valdes said. Mambi has already set up a telephone number (305-896-5034) for people to book trips and make reservations, Valdes said.

Last year, Key West International Airport secured approval from the federal to offer flights between the airport and Cuba, but the flights are restricted to less than 10 people because of the airport's limited space for customs equipment and personnel.

The airport has embarked on a $2 million construction plan to expand the customs facility, which would enable it to handle 75 international passengers, Horton said.

Commercial air service between Key West and Havana effectively came to an end in the early 1960s after the United States government banned tourist travel to Cuba because of the strained relationship between the two countries under Fidel Castro's administration. Prior to Castro taking power, Key West and Havana residents frequently traveled between the two cities.

Cuban families, cultural exchange groups and journalists are still able to legally travel to Cuba, and there are regular flights between the two countries out of Miami.

"Tourism from Key West to Havana was very important to residents of both cities," Valdes said. "This (the air service) is not political; it's about bringing people from the two countries back together."

tohara@keysnews.com

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