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BWI Airport wins approval for Cuba air service

ANNAPOLIS – Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has been cleared to offer passenger air service to Cuba, the airport said Tuesday.

The federal approval comes as part of the president’s effort to ease restrictions on travel to the communist island nation for academic, religious, humanitarian and news-gathering organizations. Trips will be limited to charter flights.

An airport spokesman said Tuesday flights could begin this year, but added that hurdles remain. Charter services would need both U.S. and Cuban government approval to fly the route.

“The authorization can produce expanded access to Cuba for Maryland and the entire national capital region,” airport Executive Director Paul J. Wiedefeld said in a written statement. “This service has the potential to benefit many institutions and organizations throughout our region.”

BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said airport officials have had discussions with charter airlines, but declined to divulge how advanced the talks are.

“There are interested parties to provide the service,” he said.

The airport applied to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the right to run the Cuba charter service after President Barack Obama announced in January the changes to travel restrictions to facilitate more U.S. travel there.

Customs has also approved Cuban travel from Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Tampa and Pittsburgh.

Those flights have been limited to airports in New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

“As a Washington airport, this is an important step for BWI-Marshall,” Dean said.

Obama, in outlining his plan, said the steps taken would forge more “people-to-people” contact with Cuban residents. The administration’s changes also allow U.S. citizens to send up to $500 per quarter to Cubans to support private economic activity there, and for religious institutions to support religious activities in the Carribean nation.

The U.S. first placed restrictions on travel to Cuba in 1961, two years after the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro toppled the dictatorial government.

President Jimmy Carter opened Cuba in 1977 to student, religious and cultural groups. His successor, Ronald Reagan, reimposed travel restrictions in 1982.