New Orleans Airport cleared by Cuba

October 13 2011 | Latest News
Hopes that the private sector benefits from this clearance from Cuba.

October 13, 2011

By: Rebecca Mowbray, Times Picayune

The Cuban government has agreed to receive direct flights from New Orleans for the first time in more than 50 years, opening the door for travel companies from anywhere in the country to apply for permits to make flight plans originating from New Orleans.
louis_armstrong_international_airport_exterior.jpgDonald Stout, The Times-Picayune archiveLouis Armstrong International Airport was photographed in January 2007.

In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection approved an application from Louis Armstrong International Airport and seven other air fields to serve as a gateway to Cuba.

But after the door was opened on the U.S. side, efforts to gain permission from the Cuban side for flights seemed to be moving slowly. In August, two officials from the airport and two from Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration -- Aimee Quirk, adviser to the mayor for economic development, and Richard Cortizas, then executive counsel to the mayor, now acting city attorney -- traveled to Cuba to make the case for why the Caribbean island nation should receive flights from New Orleans.

Airport officials just received a letter from Cuban officials approving New Orleans as one of a handful of U.S. cities able to offer flights.

"The administration and airport management worked hard on creating an opportunity for private sector (companies) to provide flights from Armstrong International Airport to Cuba, " Armstrong Airport's director of aviation, Iftikhar Ahmad, said in a news release. "We hope that private sector will benefit from this opportunity."

Quirk said the delegation emphasized during the one-day trip the Cuban population in New Orleans, the cultural ties between New Orleans and Cuba, and academic ties through the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University. They also promoted the idea that New Orleans, as a leisure travel destination, has lower airfares than other business-oriented airports vying for certification.

Quirk said the approval for flights not only creates the opportunity for New Orleanians to travel to Cuba, but also for people elsewhere in the country to fly to Cuba through New Orleans. Armstrong International could increase its passenger counts because of the certification for a limited number of U.S. airports, and local tourism companies could make a pitch for travelers to spend a few days enjoying music in New Orleans before departing for Havana. Tour companies from elsewhere in the country could also build itineraries through New Orleans.

"That's one of the allures here, " she said.

The city administration has targeted efforts to rebuild international air service from New Orleans.

Before the Cuban Revolution, New Orleans was Cuba's largest trading partner in the United States. It has long been believed that if the Cuba were to open to U.S. tourism, Louisiana would stand to benefit because cruise companies would likely plan itineraries from New Orleans to Havana and local companies would find new export markets in Cuba.

In January, the Obama administration relaxed restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba, but it left the long-standing embargo in place. The new rules allow travel for cultural, academic or religious purposes; allow Americans to send money to ordinary citizens in Cuba; and allow for charter flights from more American cities.

In the past, only Los Angeles, Miami and New York were allowed to offer flights to Cuba. But in March, the Obama administration said New Orleans, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Tampa and San Juan, Puerto Rico, could also offer flights, bringing the total to 11 cities from which flights to Cuba could depart.

Airport spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut said airport and city officials made the application to try to open doors for local companies. Any U.S. company seeking to operate flights now must obtain permission from the Department of Permits and Flight Planning Institute Civil Aeronautics of Cuba.

It's just a matter of "a service provider stepping forward and providing that service, whether it's a charter or tour operator or airline, " Wilcut said. Major airlines frequently have charter operations on the side.

At least two local companies could be poised to jump in.

The Metairie company Super Saver Travel Agency Inc., which does business as Cuba Travel-USA, is already on the U.S. government's list of approved Cuba service providers, and it requested that the airport pursue certification for flights. Super Saver could not be reached for comment.

The New Orleans tour company Destination Management Inc. is also approved by the U.S. Department of Treasury as Cuba service provider.

"It's a new and emerging market, " Wilcut said.