Saturday, June 18, 2011

U.S. Customs: No Key West-Cuba flights for now

Posted on Saturday, 06.18.11

U.S. Customs: No Key West-Cuba flights for now
By Karen Quist
Florida Keys Keynoter

MARATHON -- U.S. Customs and Border Protection has denied Key West
International Airport's request to accommodate passenger air service to
and from Cuba.

The denial, dated May 25, cites the airport's lack of proper inspection
facilities and appropriate or sufficient federal personnel.

When President Barack Obama eased some restrictions on American travel
to Cuba early this year, it raised hopes in Key West that charter
flights might soon be able to travel the 90 miles between the two
islands. Customs' decision on the March 22 request temporarily dashed
those hopes.

But county Airports Director Peter Horton told the County Commission on
Wednesday that he's confident upgrades planned at the airport will clear
the path for flights if the long-standing embargo is lifted.

Horton said the airport is working on the first phase, a $250,000
project to improve security.

He declined to offer specifics, citing security.

Once that work is completed, the airport can expedite a two-phase revamp
of the security and Customs facilities to the east of the old terminal.
That would double the agency's square footage and create a larger
screening and processing area.

That project's cost is an estimated $2 million, which will come from
federal and state aviation funds and passenger facility charges. The
funding is not in place yet, but Horton said Customs' rejection should
help speed it along. Horton said the project will be completed "as
quickly as Customs will approve our plans."

Miami-based C&T Charters was one operator interested in providing
service to Cuba, but Horton said owner John H. Cabanas is fine with a
delay because he wouldn't be ready to offer the service for six months
to a year.

Cabanas, whose company already flies to Cuba from Miami International
Airport, couldn't be reached for comment Friday. Current Key West
carrier Cape Air expressed interest initially, Horton said, but once it
saw the paperwork involved, the company decided to hold off while
there's still an embargo.

Horton said airport facilities are not the only issue.

He said the Customs office, which is also responsible for processing
incoming cruise ships, does not have enough staff to handle
international commercial aviation, particularly if cruise and airline
schedules would overlap.

Gregory McCann, acting director of field operations with the Customs and
Border Protection office in Miami, did not return a request for comment
by press time.

The Monroe County Tourist Development Council's Harold Wheeler said the
decision is a setback to the TDC's marketing strategy. The TDC wants to
promote the Keys as the place to stay while taking excursions to the
island nation, as well as a side trip for travelers to Cuba.

"However, this could be just a delay in the process, with the county
finding the funding and adding the needed structure…," Wheeler said.
"This has to get completed, because it is vital to our tourism to have
air and marine transportation between the two destinations."

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