Imagine boarding a Boeing 727 jet at Baltimore-Washington International right after lunch, and landing in Havana just in time for a late-afternoon stroll along the oceanfront Malecón.
Guess what: You won’t have to imagine for much longer.
Within six months, businessman William J. Hauf is confident his company will be offering weekly charter flights from BWI to communist Cuba — and maybe twice-a-week flights if demand warrants.
That doesn’t mean, however, that thousands of Marylanders will be flocking to the sunny beaches of Varadero this winter. Unless they have specific permission from the U.S. Treasury Department, most Americans won’t be allowed on the new flights, a consequence of the 50-year-old embargo that forbids U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba — even though it’s perfectly OK to visit Iran, Syria, North Korea, China, Zimbabwe, Belarus and other shining beacons of democracy.
And at $895 per round-trip ticket, these Havana flights aren’t exactly a bargain; it’s cheaper to fly from BWI to London and back.
Nevertheless, Hauf’s new venture would mark the first time in history — even before Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution — that the capital cities of the United States and Cuba are linked by regular nonstop service.
“There have never been flights from BWI to Havana, so it’s a big story,” he said. “That’s why journalists have expressed such an interest to be on the inaugural flight.”
Hauf, interviewed earlier this month over breakfast in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is president of Island Travel & Tours Ltd., a Tampa-based outfit that specializes in Cuba.
The inaugural flight Hauf dreams of was supposed to take off Mar. 21, right around Easter recess, but poor ticket sales forced him to put off that dream for at least another six months.
“We didn’t have enough interest to get the 80 passengers we needed to break even,” he said, noting that fewer than 10 tickets were actually sold. “We began promoting in mid-January, which turned out to be an inadequate amount of time — nothing that could develop into a large enough market.”
Hauf said the market for the Baltimore area will consist of categories of people who may already visit Cuba — government staffers, think tanks, universities, religious groups, architectural schools, law schools, journalists and entities like the IMF, the World Bank and the World Health Organization.
Hauf, 67, didn’t start out in the travel business — nor did he originally have any particular interest in Cuba. A native New Yorker, he made his money in the California real-estate boom, investing mainly in apartments.
In 1988, he put together a 2,600-acre project in San Diego County consisting of 1,600 single-family homes. His Cuba obsession began in a conversation had 15 years ago with a woman whose ex-boyfriend had visited Cuba.
“We were on a plane to go scuba-diving in the Cayman Islands, and we flew over Cuba,” he recalled. “I asked what that island was, and it piqued my curiosity because I didn’t know much about it.”
Before long, Hauf was helping distribute a magazine called “Business Tips on Cuba” being published by Isidoro Malmierca, Cuba’s former foreign minister (and the father of current foreign trade and investment minister Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz).
After the elder Malmierca’s death, the magazine ceased publication.
Hauf, who’s been to Cuba more than 100 times in the last 16 years, is constantly looking for ways around the U.S. embargo that’s crimped bilateral trade ever since President Kennedy declared it back in February 1962.
In early 1999 — encouraged by the Clinton administration’s moves to open “people-to-people” travel to the forbidden island — Hauf wrote to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). He requested a Travel Service Provider license, a Carrier Service Provider license and a Remittance Forwarding license.
That same year, he traveled to Cuba to watch the Baltimore Orioles make history as the first Major League Baseball team to set foot in Cuba in 40 years. The last time had been Mar. 21, 1959, when the Cincinnati Reds played the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“In May 2000, I got all three licenses,” he said. “I also applied for a license from the Department of Commerce to ship playground equipment to Cuba. At that time, I was making money off the apartments, and got 62 volunteers to build playgrounds. I rented an A320 from Airtran, and we took the volunteers on a nonstop flight from Baltimore to Havana. That was my first flight from BWI.”
Fittingly, BWI was also the first U.S. airport from which Hauf requested government permission to fly to Cuba. For years, only three gateways — Miami, New York JFK and Los Angeles — were allowed to offer such charter flights.
“I felt that Baltimore was perfect for what I was trying to do, which was to bring the two countries closer together,”?he said. “I thought that if there were a direct flight from BWI to Havana, more officials from Washington think tanks and policy institutes would travel to Cuba, get to know its people — and through that, a dialogue could be established.”
In addition, he said, “BWI is along the East Coast corridor that has I-95 and Amtrak, so people as far north as New Jersey, Philadelphia and Delaware can come right to the airport by train. Dulles is somewhat isolated, and you have to take a bus or taxi or some other means to get to it.”
But Hauf was told that he couldn’t be granted CSP status from Baltimore because BWI was not on the approved list of airports.
“So I changed it to Miami, although we knew Cuba wouldn’t give us permission [to fly from Miami] because there were already eight companies serving that market,” he said. “In July 2008, I went down to Cuba and met with the vice-president of Havanatur, and told him that from all indications, Sen. Obama would be elected president. Therefore, I wished to request landing rights to Baltimore but also include Tampa, because Tampa has one of the largest Cuban-American populations in the United States.”
Hauf enlisted the support of Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) as well as Louis Miller, then-executive director of Tampa International Airport and several other organizations.
On Jan. 21, 2011, the Obama administration announced the list of a dozen new airports that would be allowed to offer Cuba charter service. Both BWI and Tampa were on it, along with Atlanta, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans, Dallas-Fort Worth, Pittsburgh and San Juan, Puerto Rico, to name a few.
Hauf’s company, Island Travel & Tours, didn’t waste any time. In November, it began flying once a week between Tampa and Havana, charging $445 round-trip including taxes and fees. And his planes are leaving full.
“We have a waiting list of people but have not been able to accommodate them because we don’t have extra seats,” Hauf said. That’s because they’re drawing on the local Cuban-American population to fill seats.
In BWI’s case, there is no local Cuban exile population to speak of, so the challenge here is to target universities, nonprofit organizations and others who could sign up groups for legally sanctioned “people-to-people” travel to the island.
“Tampa has the same challenge BWI has in recruiting international carriers. The people who work as air services development managers travel around the world, talking to those foreign carriers and trying to recruit them to establish routes,” he said. “They see Cuba as a great opening. Once we begin, we hope there will be a flight every week until such time we’ll have enough passengers to open a second flight. That’s our goal, to have a minimum two flights a week.”
BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean agreed.
“The Washington region has many organizations and institutions which would benefit from nonstop charters. It would be a very nice service for BWI to feature,” he told us. “Cuba is a niche market, one that under current legislation is not available to your typical leisure traveler. But there is a specialized market for this service.”
Dean said BWI handled 22.4 million passengers in 2011, up 2.1% from 21.9 million passengers in 2010. It was also one of only two major U.S. airports to show growth in 2009, the other being San Francisco.
Currently, BWI offers flights to seven foreign destinations: London, Toronto, Aruba, Cancún, Freeport, Nassau and Montego Bay. In addition, nonstop service to Frankfurt via Condor Airlines is set to begin in July.
Hauf remains hopeful he’ll be able to add Havana to that list later this year.
“We need more time to make people aware of these flights,” he told us. “Under DOT regulations, until we choose an exact date, I can’t promote flights. But clearly we’ll have to do more promotion because groups take four or five months to prepare for. We’re looking at the fall as a starting point because by then, there should be sufficient demand.”
But that’s not enough. Hauf wants an end to the U.S. travel ban altogether.
“I hope President Obama will show the leadership he professed in his campaign,” he declared. “The most definitive statement he could make regarding Cuba would be to fly Air Force One to Havana’s José Martí Airport and show that we are a strong nation and can talk to anyone.”