Flying to Havana

The service begins – sort of

Gran Teatro, Havana

After a controversial half-century, the last travel barriers between the United States and the Cuba of Fidel Castro are beginning to fall, not with a whimper of slow disintegration but with a loud, seemingly conclusive bang.

Back-to-back nonstop flights are scheduled out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport direct to José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba, by the end of March.

But before you rush out to book a flight and buy a guide to Havana’s nightspots, consider that while one of these flights is considered “bargain-basement inexpensive,” it will not be opened to the average Joe motivated by curiosity.

“Our first flight will be $589,” says Alina Fernández, president of Cuba Travel USA and exclusive travel agent for the New Orleans to Cuba flights. “We are licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department and while several presidents (of the United States) have come in and continued to drop barriers between the United States and Cuba, these early flights are for specific people such as students, Cuban natives, academics and members of the media, religious groups …”

“Religious groups” include Fernández’s “Pilgrimage Trip to Cuba out of New Orleans, March 26 to 29 for the Historical Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba.” The Papal-based trips are a bit pricier, running up to $2,125 per person, and are headed up by Father Jose I. Lavastida, President-Rector of Notre Dame Seminary, who’s listed as the “Spiritual Director” of the trip.

The $589 “non-pilgrimage” flights are scheduled to take off beginning March 31.

“The plane we have is a charter from the Sky King company out of Miami,” Fernández says. “It’s a (model) 727-300 and can seat 128 passengers for the hour and 35 minute flight from New Orleans to Havana.”

Fernández, whose company operates out of a small office off Airline Drive in Metairie, is a Cuban native and says she has been working on this flight with various government agencies for the past 10 years.

“Little by little we’ve been getting there,” she says. “During his last year in office, I flew with (then-Mayor C. Ray) Nagin to Cuba. I asked him to work with us to designate Armstrong Airport for the trips. But only the president can do that. President Clinton opened up Los Angeles and New York. And now, President Obama has opened all airports.” She continues, “That’s what made our trips possible. Now all we need to make this real is to get the numbers, the passengers. But I am certain this will happen.”

But with an estimated 10,000 native Cubans and New Orleanians of Cuban descent living in New Orleans, not everybody is jumping through hoops to see the barriers between the two countries fall.

“We really can’t take a stand on this trip one way or the other because we don’t have a mandate,” says Darlene Kattan, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in New Orleans. “There are a lot of people who stand by the old line that they want to keep Castro and his Cuba on the outside until he’s gone. But when you look at that, you realize right now the country is really being run by Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother), and he’s 80 years old. He could run the country another 10 years or so. Do we continue our present policy for that long?” She continues, “Still, others feel that it has been long enough; that enough time has gone by and that we should put aside all of this and bring down the barriers because what has happened is that despite the embargoes and the sanctions, the Castros are still in power and, in the end, only the average everyday people suffer. There are pros and cons to this question, and both sides have legitimate concerns.”

To be sure, Americans can, and for a long time now have been able to, travel to Cuba on a limited basis. But a trip from New Orleans currently leads to a zigzag path to Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Tampa and a connecting flight with a Sky King flight on to Cuba.

“But nothing direct,” Fernández says. “The situation now means bouncing from airport to airport to get to your destination. We want to change all that: one plane, one hour and 35 minutes. That makes more sense, doesn’t it? All we need now are the numbers. If the phone starts ringing and people start coming through the door … we’ll make it happen.”

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