For Cubans in Miami making the trip back home for the holidays, flying to the island nation can be complicated: The high cost of obtaining or renewing their Cuban passport, the massive amounts of luggage many take with them to give to family members in Cuba, and the cost of such a trip, which runs a few thousand dollars.
This week, hundreds of customers who had planned to travel to Cuba with Gulfstream Air Charter have hit another obstacle: After travelers purchased their tickets, the airline notified them that its planes have been grounded indefinitely, leaving them packed and dressed up with nowhere to go.
“Every day 300 people arrive who were going to travel, and the only explanation we have to give the client is that Cuba has not given authorization to land,” said Ever Chang, a spokesman for Gulfstream Air Charter and the owner’s executive assistant.
Chang explained that three months ago, the company was forced to switch airplanes following a request from the Cuban government. The company, which has run its operation for 25 years, then had to ask Cuba and the United States for permission to ferry passengers to the Caribbean nation.
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That authorization, Chang said, usually takes 72 hours to process. The United States promptly gave the charter company the green light, but Cuba’s Institute of Civil Aeronautics has dragged its feet.
“You call Cuba and nobody gives an answer,” Chang told El Nuevo Herald. “They said stuff like, ‘The staff is on vacation’ or ‘The minister has a problem in his arm.’”
At the end of business at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, the Cuban government had not yet authorized Gulfstream Air Charter’s flights — which were to be operated by an Icelandic airline, Wow Air — forcing the company to cancel flights planned for Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
“About 1,000 passengers were left grounded,” Chang added.
Gulfstream Air Charter, located in the Ocean Bank building on Le Jeune Road and Northwest Seventh Street, will be open until 2 p.m. on Saturday to assist customers who want to be reimbursed or have their flights rescheduled.
Others can be redirected to another charter company through the tour operator Havanatur-Celimar, but that option may not be appealing to customers drawn to Gulfstream for its reduced rates.
For those customers who had carefully scheduled the trips around the holidays far in advance, reimbursement won’t alleviate their frustration.
“I felt anger, helplessness and despair [when they canceled my trip],” said Alejandro Reyes, who purchased three tickets through Gulfstream Air Charter about a month ago. He had planned to visit Cuba with his mother and partner.
His flight was originally scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday. A week ago, an employee from the travel agency where he purchased the tickets called to say his flight had been delayed by two hours. Then on Wednesday, he was told the flight had been canceled completely.
“The worst thing is that they cancel the day before at 6 p.m.,” Reyes said, adding that he had already rented a house in Havana and arranged transportation to visit his family in Cienfuegos.
Reyes decided to buy a more expensive ticket with another airline and leave behind some of the items he had planned to give to his family.
His ticket with Gulfstream had cost him just $260, and the charter company offered attractive deals on bulk baggage.
“Today I had to pay $1,200 for the tickets and they did not refund anything from the others,” Reyes said Thursday, ahead of his Friday flight. “The lady from the agency told me that I can stop by to collect the money, but I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Reyes, 29, said Gulfstream allows passengers to bring along a 20-pound carry-on bag for free, and that the first 45 pounds of checked luggage are also complimentary. Any additional weight is charged at a rate of $1 per pound for up to 70 pounds, he said, while other airlines charge double.
“We had to bring stuff for three families,” Reyes said.
Chang said it has been difficult for the charter company to be criticized for selling tickets without first having permission from the Cuban government.
He defended the company’s decision, arguing that preparations needed to be made in advance. Gulfstream started selling tickets in September. Now it’s worried about its financial losses.
Among other expenses, the company will cover the lodging and food for its crew for about two weeks. If the Cuban government allows them to take off, the company needs the crew to be available, Chang said.
“The level of stress is tremendous,” he said.