March 11, 2009 — -- "Take this plane to Cuba!"
Does that phrase ring a bell? Those chilling words were heard again and again -- mostly in the late '60s and early '70s -- when hijacking planes to Cuba occurred with depressing regularity (and led to the installation of metal detectors at U.S. airports).
That was one way -- the criminal way -- to visit Havana. Nowadays, you can fly there by charter -- that is, if you have close relatives there; if you agree to visit only once every three years; and if you cap your spending at $50 a day. Yes, the Cold War against Cuba continues.
But wait. Congress is working on a thaw -- and has voted to ease restrictions for families. Some believe that'll eventually mean the rest of us will be able to fly into José Marti International as tourists -- maybe even later this year. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., described the four-decades-old policy of isolating the communist nation as "such a failed policy [that] it deserves a burial."
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So who's ready to fly to Cuba?
Don't look for many airlines to raise their hands just yet. U.S.-Cuba relations have been a political can of worms for so long that, even though The New York Times reports a "new generation of Cuban-American leaders has rejected hard-line positions," I think most airlines are happy to sit this one out while Congress does its thing.
Sure, Fidel has retired, yet his totalitarian regime lives on and memories are long. But times are changing, slowly but surely.
For example: When we contacted Spirit Airlines, a representative said the carrier "would be interested in evaluating Cuba as a destination" while adding that there are "no active plans to do so until the ban on travel is ended."
Spirit, Southwest and the Cigar Factor
Spirit would be in a good position to open up routes -- the Miramar, Fla.-based airline already flies all over the Caribbean -- and face it, Havana is only about 200 miles from Miami. Plus, there'd be all the fun of watching how Spirit's typical "racy" ad campaigns go over with the Cuban-American populace (they have not gone over well with their flight attendants).
Then there's Southwest Airlines: While we couldn't get a comment from it on Cuba, the airline's interest in expanding to nearby international destinations could make this an ideal fit.
And while the Southwest model of several flights a day wouldn't typically lend itself to the Caribbean -- where one flight a day is the norm -- Cuba could turn out to be a "milk run" just like Southwest's new eight-flights-a-day service between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago Midway, inaugurated this past weekend. Plus, flying to Havana would be perfect for the range of Southwest's fleet of 737s.
And, you never know -- if the travel ban is lifted, we might have a stampede of airlines on our hands. After all, there are more than 11 million people in Cuba -- and my guess is, a lot of them would be interested in traveling to the United States as well. Then there's my completely unofficial survey of friends and colleagues, revealing that they, too, would like to visit the island nation ("Heck, yeah!").
And never underestimate the cigar factor.
It seems every time I'm about to head for Europe, I start getting the envious calls: "Smoke a Cuban for me, will you?" Not being a smoker, this is pretty meaningless for me, but maybe soon my friends can get all the cigars they want, at the source.
And think of the tourism possibilities. While I doubt we'd ever see a return to the casinos of the dictator Batista's day (unless Donald Trump is looking for a new challenge), some U.S. tourism officials expect Cuba "to rapidly improve its infrastructure and accommodations for tourists" as soon as travel restrictions are lifted.
And think what a boon this would be to Hollywood. In "Godfather II," the travel ban forced the filmmakers to shoot Cuban scenes in the Dominican Republic, while Warren Beatty's "Bugsy" used buildings in Los Angeles and Pasadena to stand-in for Havana's venerable Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The hotel's still there, although Meyer Lansky and his pals are long gone. Maybe it's time for the Nacional to make a comeback.
Who knows? Perhaps Cuba would one day be a prime area for investors looking to score off tourism.
In the meantime, Cuba might want to hurry up with its hotel improvements. One congresswoman expects the easing of family visits alone will triple the number of visitors flying into Havana to nearly 30,000 per month. And at least one airport is looking ahead, too.
Family members are now allowed to fly to Cuba from New York, Los Angeles and Miami, but Tampa International is asking to be the fourth airport to play host to U.S.-Cuba charters.
And if the travel ban for the rest of us is eased or eliminated, it might provide a lift for our economy, too -- perhaps with increased revenues for airlines prescient enough to move quickly.
And hey, wouldn't it be nice to erase the ominous old images of hijacking maniacs and replace them with digital pix of happy, smiling tourists?
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.