Mark Belko | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | September 9, 2016
As little as a year ago, a nonstop flight to Cuba from Pittsburgh would have been the stuff of pipe dreams. Now it may be just months away from happening.
Miami-based Choice Aire intends to begin twice-weekly charter service to Cuba from Pittsburgh International Airport later this year. Officials with the charter airline are expected to be in Pittsburgh Tuesday to formally make the announcement, said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority.
The date for the start of the charter service has not been determined, as Choice Aire is still awaiting formal approval for the flights from the Cuban government. Ms. Cassotis said the airline hopes to start the service before the end of the year.
No details were available on ticket prices or scheduling.
As far as anyone can remember, it would be the first time Pittsburgh has had a flight to the Caribbean island, even predating the 1960 travel embargo as relations between the two countries deteriorated following Fidel Castro’s rise to power.
Ms. Cassotis said Choice Aire now operates flights into Cuba from Miami and is looking to expand its reach, with Pittsburgh being one of the markets it has its eye on. Choice will use Boeing 737-400 aircraft for the flights from Pittsburgh.
“[The flight’s] good news for the region. We think it is an opportunity to watch a market grow and to capture the existing travel we know is going out of here because of the universities, the cultural institutions, and people who have interest. Now they can just go right from Pittsburgh, as opposed to having to connect over another point,” Ms. Cassotis said. “It’s a big deal.”
Choice Aire officials could not be reached for comment.
Phoenix-based Swift Airlines will serve as the operator for Choice. Founded in 1997, Swift provides business and commercial jets for charter and business use.
The Allegheny County Airport Authority, which operates Pittsburgh International, has been talking to Choice for more than a year about starting the service.
Although Choice is not considered a commercial carrier, the flights to Cuba will be open to anyone who has an approved visa for travel to the communist country, according to Bryan Dietz, the authority’s vice president of air service development.
“There really is no difference from a consumer perspective,” he said.
Like many charter carriers, Choice offers full travel packages, including hotels and meals, to those who book. Mr. Dietz said it is similar in some respects to Apple Vacations or Vacation Express.
Pittsburgh International was designated by the federal government in 2011 as one of 19 airports in the country authorized to allow nonstop flights to Cuba.
The U.S. eased travel restrictions to the island earlier this year, making it possible for airlines to fly regularly scheduled commercial flights there for the first time in decades. Some of those flights are just starting, although charter services have been available in the past.
For Americans to travel to Cuba, the trip must fall within one of 12 categories, including academic programs or professional research, visits with relatives, religious activities, journalistic purposes, and involvement in sports or public performances. “People to People” visits, or trips to meet ordinary Cubans, also are permitted.
Standard tourism is still off limits.
Jeff Whitehead, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Study Abroad Office, said a charter service to Cuba from the airport would be “very appealing” if the departure and return flights were on weekends.
Pitt typically takes groups of 10 to 15 students to Cuba two to three times a year, usually during spring break or the summer.
“It would be very convenient for students and faculty to leave from Pittsburgh instead of having to shuttle to Miami, Fort Lauderdale or New York,” he said.
“It would be good news for us. Any expansion of routes from Pittsburgh is good news for us.”