HAVANA, 14 April (By TOM HUDSON) Rob Valle used to fly fighter jets for the U.S. Navy. Now he flies charter flights for his company Air Key West. Since late March that has included a weekly scheduled flight from Key West International Airport to Havana.
He fits nine passengers, including one in the co-pilot seat next to him. They pay $525 for the round-trip flight.”I have a lot of hopes and expectations for Cuba. There was a lot of curiosity that I think was pent up through the years,” Valle said. “We’ve gotten a whole lot of calls. I think there’s a whole lot of interest of people wanting to go down to Cuba and check it out.”
With last year’s announcement by President Obama to expand travel opportunities, Americans still cannot visit the island for purely tourism reasons. Valle says most of his passengers have family in Cuba. Despite the travel restrictions, he was confident enough the demand for flights to Cuba will continue to help afford his $1 million Air Key West plane.
Key West International Airport also is investing in hopes of attracting more international travelers, including those from Cuba. The airport’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection Bureau can only handle 10 international passengers at a time.
(That’s partly why Valle bought a plane with a 10 person capacity.) Designated as general aviation facility, the airport’s international growth is limited by how many passengers it can process. It’s spending several million dollars to add space for customs to become a federal inspection facility. Once completed, it will be able to accept up to 70 international passengers at a time.
“This is the thing that all airport managers face,” says Monroe County Director of Airports Don DeGraw. “Build it and will they come? We’re confident even if we build it and we don’t see the immediate effects, just having a new upgraded larger facility is going to set the stage for the future.”
How important is Cuba in that future? Especially if more major air carriers open new routes from larger airports? Valle doesn’t think the major airlines will present much competition. “I think the pain factor is a lot less flying out of Key West.”