Florida Keys

Keys-Cuba flights to resume mid-March

The flights to Cuba will leave Key West International Airport at 10 a.m. and return at 1 p.m. The 90-mile trek from the Southernmost City to Cuba takes about 45 minutes, according to Coma.
The flights to Cuba will leave Key West International Airport at 10 a.m. and return at 1 p.m. The 90-mile trek from the Southernmost City to Cuba takes about 45 minutes, according to Coma. Miami Herald File

A Miami travel company is reviving flights between Key West International Airport and Cuba.

Mambi International Group, which launched a similar service in February 2014, is in the cockpit once again for travel to the communist country following December’s announcement of eased travel restrictions on U.S. residents going to Cuba. While last year’s venture lasted only about six weeks, Mambi sales executive Banay Coma said the company is more organized this time around.

It opened a Key West office in December on North Roosevelt Boulevard. “We’re hoping everything works out,” said Coma, who works out of the Key West office. “We have to build that connection.”

Commercial flights on one nine-passenger plane to Havana are scheduled to start March 13, leaving every Friday with a round-trip price of $525. Mambi will also fly to Santa Clara in central Cuba every Wednesday starting March 25. Coma said the plan is to increase flights as demand rises. It already has some reservations.

The flights to Cuba will leave Key West International Airport at 10 a.m. and return at 1 p.m. The 90-mile trek from the Southernmost City to Cuba takes about 45 minutes, according to Coma.

Mambi has the necessary federal approval for Cuba travel. The company had been working on resuming Key West-to-Cuba flights since shutting down last year.

“Some licenses were renewed, some we already had,” Coma said.

Those who want to travel to Cuba no longer need a specific license as long as they meet criteria under one of 12 federal categories, including family visits, humanitarian projects and religious activities.

The eased travel restrictions are a result of President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announcing in December that the U.S. and Cuba were re-establishing diplomatic ties after half a century.

A Treasury Department spokesperson said the travel is “generally permitted” as long as travelers meet the category requirements. Travel-service providers and air carriers do not need a specific Office of Foreign Asset Control license to provide service for authorized travelers to Cuba anymore.

Coma said Mambi International will verify the purpose of someone’s trip Cuba. For example, artists would need an affidavit from a gallery.

While traveling to Cuba as a tourist is still banned, the lack of a specific license requirement essentially means Americans can come and go as long as they cite a non-tourist reason for doing so — an honor system of sorts.

Travel websites such as Kayak have begun listing flights to Havana, as well. And Fort Lauderdale-based company KonaCat is trying to start a ferry service between Marathon and Cuba by the end of the year. The 200-passenger catamaran would run from the Marathon Marina to Havana twice a day.

Recently, celebrities Conan O’Brien and Paris Hilton have traveled to the island nation. O’Brien filmed an episode for his late-night comedy talk show, “Conan,” which aired Wednesday night.

Hilton visited the Hotel Habana Libre, which her great-grandfather Conrad Hilton opened in 1958 under the name Hotel Habana Hilton. It’s where Fidel Castro initially set up his political headquarters in 1959, taking suite 2324 as his main office.

Key West International Airport started the process of becoming an international point of entry for the U.S. in 2009 with a request to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Thus began a two-year, $2.25 million project to have the airport reclassified as a federal inspection station, which the feds signed off on in October 2011.

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