By Michael Haskins
KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - Key West is the latest U.S. city to receive permission from federal authorities to offer flights to communist-ruled Cuba -- a half-hour hop that will be much faster than driving from Key West to Miami.
The airport of Florida's southernmost city just 90 miles across the Florida Straits from Cuba joins a string of other U.S. airports which this year obtained authorization to host charter flights to and from the Caribbean Island.
Relations between ideologically opposed neighbors the United States and Cuba remain cool, and they do not have full formal diplomatic ties or scheduled commercial flights.
General tourism to Cuba remains off-limits for ordinary Americans under an existing U.S. trade embargo.
But U.S. President Barack Obama has eased some restrictions on travel to Cuba, especially by Cuban-Americans, to encourage "people-to-people" contacts U.S. officials hope can help foment democratic change in the one-party communist state.
Peter Horton, director of airports for Monroe County where Key West is located, told Reuters the October 5 authorization email he received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection did spell out some restrictions for Cuba flights however.
"It does not open up flights for the average American and it limits arriving passengers to 10 per flight. But it's the first step and it's an important one," Horton said.
The flight would take around a half hour or less, much quicker than the four-hour car drive from Key West to Miami.
"Cuban-Americans with relatives in Cuba could fly from here, when we have an airline arranged, as could anyone with a federal license to visit Cuba, but not tourists visiting the Keys, or locals," he added.
Under its "people-to-people" initiative, the Obama administration is now licensing some religious, academic and other professional travel by Americans to Cuba.
A string of U.S. airports -- Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston and San Juan, Puerto Rico -- received federal authorization this year to start operating charter flights to Cuba.
Before March, only Miami, New York and Los Angeles had air service to Cuba.
NEED CUBAN GO-AHEAD
Horton said the initial restriction on Key West allowing only 10 arriving passengers per flight from Cuba had to do with the airport's current status as a General Aviation Facility, which falls short of the Federal Inspection Status required to be able to receive larger international passenger numbers.
Key West airport had begun a $2.25 million upgrade project, to be completed in two years, that would expand facilities for Customs and Border Protection to receive passengers.
The Key West-Havana flights still require authorization from the Cuban government and aviation authorities, said John Cabanas, owner of CT Charters which already operates Cuba-bound air charters from Miami, New York and Chicago.
He said he was ready to operate a 19-seat aircraft on the route from the Florida Keys city to Cuba.
"We'll be ready to add Key West to our existing itinerary, if the Cubans give us the okay," he said.
Key West Mayor Craig Cates recalled that before the 1959 Revolution that brought communism to Cuba and led to the break in U.S.-Cuba relations many Key West residents and visitors regularly flew from there to spend a day or a night or longer on the nearby Caribbean island, a fabled tourism destination.
"Many of us look forward to that day coming again. Key West and Cuba share a history and it would be nice to see some normalcy back between us and Havana," Cates said. He acknowledged though this could still be some time away.
Friday, Tampa International Airport said the charter flights it offered to Cuba were being expanded to include the eastern city of Holguin, in addition to the capital Havana.
The number of U.S. citizens visiting Cuba increased last year by 20 percent, to 63,000, according to Cuban statistics.
Some 350,000 Cuban Americans visited Cuba in 2010 after the Obama administration lifted restrictions on their travel.
(Additional reporting by Robert Green in St. Petersburg; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Cynthia Osterman)