March 14 2011 | Latest NewsNew Orleans airport is one of eight given approval for Cuba flights
Published: Tuesday, March 08, 2011
Eight airports including Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, have gained federal approval to schedule charter flights to and from Cuba, opening new gateways for Cuban Americans to visit relatives in the communist island nation and for other limited travel, authorities announced Tuesday.
Ismael Francisco, Prensa Latina, via The Associated PressFaithful hold a map of Cuba with a rosary hanging from it during a procession honoring the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, or Virgin of the Copper Charity, in Camaguey, Cuba, on Feb. 18.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said such charter flights can now be scheduled from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, the world's busiest airport, as well as Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and international airports in Baltimore, Dallas/Fort Worth, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Tampa, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Previously, such flights were only allowed from Los Angeles, Miami and New York.
The decision to add airports comes as part of an expanded effort to reach out to the Cuban people announced by President Barack Obama earlier this year.
In Atlanta, airport officials lauded the decision and said it will mean reunions for families and friends who have been separated for years by distance and politics.
"As Hartsfield-Jackson is the largest hub in the United States, this new service will allow tens of thousands of Cuban Americans across the country to easily reunite with their friends and families, whom they may not have seen for many years," said Louis Miller, aviation general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Flights from Atlanta would open up more convenient and affordable options for Cuban Americans across the South, Miller said, because 80 percent of the U.S. population is within a two-hour flight of Atlanta.
In the past, Cuban Americans had to first travel to Miami, Los Angeles or New York and "it's been very difficult for them to go there because of the cost," Miller said.
Delta Air Lines said it is already licensed to operate charter flights to Cuba and expects to begin nonstop charter flights from Atlanta to Cuba later this year. Miller said he's heard that could possibly be as early as May or June.
Access to flights to the Communist island nation will still be limited, Atlanta airport officials said. Passengers must have close relatives in Cuba, or must be involved in the medical or agriculture fields under existing restrictions. Travel for educational or religious activities also will be permitted, officials said.
The designation of new air travel gateways stands in contracts to more restrictive policies of previous years. Under former President George W. Bush, for instance, Cuban-Americans were allowed to visit only once every three years. Those restrictions ended in April 2009 though most non-Cuban Americans are still barred from traveling to Cuba.
Charter flight operators said the decision only encourages more travel between the two countries.
In San Juan, Puerto Rico, Port Authority Director Alberto Escudero said Tuesday it was too early to say when charter flights there might begin. Nonetheless, Escudero said he was meeting with two airlines this week that he didn't identify. Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan was among those chosen.
Jeff Martin of The Associated Press wrote this report.