Can Charter Firms Stay Aloft As Commercial Flights Take Off For Cuba?

Aug 31, 2016

Jet Blue made history on Tuesday morning with its flight  from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Cuba - the first U.S. commercial flight to Cuba in 55 years.

But what happens to the charter flights folks have relied on for so long - the jetliners that for decades ferried thousands of Cuban uncles and aunts, students and academics, cigar lovers and curiosity-seekers, but often at prices that seemed pretty steep for a half-hour journey?

Jet Blue’s roundtrip service between South Florida and Cuba costs about $215. That’s almost three times less than what charter flights have charged. So are the charter companies set to fold up?

Not at all, they say. A big reason charter fares were expensive were the exorbitant landing fees Cuba charged before the U.S. and Cuba normalized relations. Charter companies now expect to see the lower fees commercial carriers will get. And that should help the charters compete.

Elena Freyre of Xael Charters in Little Havana.
Credit Tim Padgett / WLRN.org

Elena Freyre, an executive at Xael Charters in Miami’s Little Havana, believes the 20 daily commercial flights to Havana that Cuba is set to allow won’t be enough to meet demand. She feels other factors are still in the charters’ favor, too.

“The amount of luggage that the average person that flies once a year to see their family in Cuba is carrying is not going to be accommodated by the commercial carriers," Freyre says. "There is a tremendous amount of aid that goes there from families here.”

Freyre says that reflects the community role the charters have played here - not to mention the harassment they faced in the early day from hardline Cuban exiles, who considered any travel to Cuba aid to the communist Castro regime.

“For many, many years we were the only avenue the Cuban family had to be able to see each other," says Freyre. "And back in the day, ys, there were threats and all kinds of nasty things happening.”

Freyre concedes, however, that companies like Xael will need to transition to other Cuba travel-related services besides charter flights to stay viable.