Flights to Cuba cut back for lack of demand


Not enough passengers to fill airplanes, but March is better.

A weekly flight between Los Angeles and Havana made its last trip Wednesday, the latest victim of a sharp reduction in U.S.-Cuba charter flights that industry officials blame on vastly overblown predictions of a boom in demand.

Cuba Travel Services of Long Beach, run by Michael Zuccato, announced that it had cancelled its once-a-week, non-stop flight after the chartered United jetliner returned Wednesday to LAX because of a lack of passengers.

Last month, Miami-based ABC Charters and XAEL Charters announced they would cancel two Tampa-to-Cuba flights. ABC shut down its weekly flight to Holguin as of Feb. 28, while XAEL will end its one flight to Havana per week on Feb. 14.

About 45 charter flights per week from the United States to Cuba are now programmed for the month of March, according to knowledgeable charter industry officials, compared to nearly 60 in September. Those flights are well booked, they added.

“There was the exaggerated image of a great explosion in American passengers. But the point now is that there are not enough passengers to maintain all those flights to Cuba,” said Pedro González Munné, a Miami businessman who monitors travel to the island.

U.S. companies involved in travel to Cuba began making feverish preparations in 2011 to expand the number of charter flight. Commercial flights to Cuba are not allowed because of the trade embargo, and charters require special U.S. government permits.

For one, the Obama administration had just announced that it would allow non-Cuban Americans to license educational trips to the island known as “people-to-people” visits. Cuban Americans can go at will on family reunification trips.

Cuba’s state-owned Havanatour Celimar tourism agency, controlled by military officers relatively new to the tourism industry, also leaned on the charter companies to add new flights, said the industry officials. They asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

Havanatour may have really believed that lots more U.S. visitors would be arriving, one of the officials noted. But there were also rumors that some of the U.S. firms bribed Cuban officials to obtain permissions for the extra flights.

U.S. companies suddenly announced plans to run flights from cities like Houston, New Orleans and Baltimore, which have no large Cuban-American populations. One travel analyst predicted up to 600,000 trips between the two countries in 2012.

Also undermining the predictions of an increase in U.S.-Cuba travel was a Havana decree last year hiking import duties on so-called “mules” — U.S. residents who made an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 trips last year carrying goods for resale or delivery.

What’s more, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Controls, in charge of enforcing economic sanctions on Cuba, delayed and denied some license applications last year because of allegations of abuses in the program.

Cubans in California and Las Vegas sometimes prefer the cheaper flights to Havana connecting through Tijuana, Mexico.

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