For the first time since 1962, regularly scheduled air travel between Key West and Havana is returning.
Beginning Nov. 15, a Miami-based travel company says it will offer chartered flights from Key West International Airport to José Martí International Airport in Cuba for small groups of qualifying travelers.
“But they still have a lot of work to do in a short period of time,” Monroe County Airports Director Peter Horton said.
The process began in 2009 with a request to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to designate Key West International as an official point of entry.
Following that was a three-phase, two-year, $2.25 million project to have the airport reclassified as a federal inspection station instead of the current label of a general aviation facility.
Horton said that with the upgrades the feds signed off in October 2011, it left it up to industry operators to begin offering service.
That role is being filled by Miami-based Mambi Travel and airline Air MarBrisa, which already offers flights to Cuba from Miami, Tampa and New York.
Horton said before flights can begin, Mambi has to finalize an agreement with Air MarBrisa, with the fixed base operator in Key West and get a final sign-off from Customs and Border Protection.
Flights will leave Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 3:30 p.m., returning the following morning. Cost aboard a Metro II turboprop airplane is $449 round-trip. Each flight will be able to accommodate 10 people, including the pilot.
Mambi Travel spokesman Isaac Valdes said that “we just started advertising today and we’ve pretty much got the flight booked for that [first] date.”
On the Customs and Border Protection approval timeline, he said, “We don’t foresee any problems there.” He added, “It’s going to be a historical day.”
Flights, expected to take between 30 minutes and 45 minutes each way, will originate from the fixed-base operator portion of the Key West airport where charters and private aircraft are maintained.
“There won’t be any use of the terminals,” Horton said.
Still, the new flights don’t mean anyone can just step up and buy a ticket to go to Cuba. Rather, the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the U.S. Department of the Treasury regulates travel to Cuba. Would-be visitors must obtain either a general or specific license to make the trip.
A general license gives “blanket authorization” for the holder to engage in travel to Cuba for broad activities: visiting “close relatives” who are either Cuban nationals or Americans working in Cuba for the U.S. government; official business; journalistic, educational or religious activities; professional research; and “commercial marketing, sales negotiation, accompanied delivery or servicing in Cuba” of telecommunications-related items, agricultural commodities, medicine or medical devices.
A specific license is considered when the nature of the travel isn’t covered by a general license. That includes visiting close relatives who aren’t nationals or government employees, freelance journalism, educational exchanges, academic seminars or conferences, athletic competitions, participation in a public performance, and humanitarian projects and research.