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BWI starting chartered flights to Cuba

As the United States renews its relationship with Cuba, the opportunity for business owners, government officials and students from the Baltimore-Washington area to make those connections now will be more attainable.

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport starts offering chartered flights to the Latin American country Wednesday.

A delegation of Anne Arundel County officials, led by County Executive Steve Schuh, will take the first chartered flight from the airport to José Martí International Airport in Havana for a three-day trip to the capital city to learn about the status of U.S. and Cuban relations and economic opportunities. The group has a meeting planned with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis and with officials at the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Havana, according to a press release.

But most of all, this trip will be a chance to put BWI on the map as a portal to a new frontier for American travelers.

“It’s a unique opportunity to raise the profile of BWI’s international terminal,” said Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for Schuh.

The new chartered flight comes at a time when BWI is experiencing a record volume of passengers. More than 2.3 million passengers passed through the airport in July, an all-time high, said spokesman Jonathan Dean. International passenger traffic has also grown over the years. In July, the most recent month for which statistics are available,, international traffic grew 52.5 percent over July 2014 and was the highest month ever for international travel at the airport, said Dean.

BWI is one of 19 airports in the country that has approval from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to offer flights to Cuba. The airport got that certification in 2011.

The chartered flights will be operated by Florida-based Island Travel & Tours Ltd. with partner Swift Air. Island Travel already offers flights to Cuba from Miami and Orlando and will offer flights from Fort Myers starting in November. But those flights largely cater to Cuban-Americans visiting family, said Island Travel founder, owner and president Bill Hauf.

Even though Maryland does not have a sizable Cuban population like Florida, Hauf has been trying to bring Cuba flights to BWI since 2000.

“I thought this would be a good connection point to unite the two countries and unite the two capitals of the countries as well,” said Hauf. “We have been anxiously waiting to do this.”

Hauf opted for the Anne Arundel County airport specifically because of its connection to public transportation and the Interstate 95 corridor.

“People who want to go to Cuba from as far north as south Jersey can get here easily,” he said.

The chartered flights will leave every Wednesday, depending on the number of passengers. The plane is a 126-seater Boeing 737. Hauf said the flight needs 90 to 100 passengers to break even.

“We don’t expect to make money on this for some time,” said Hauf, adding that bookings have been lower than expected.

A round-trip flight from BWI to Havana costs $649 for October. Prices originally started at $775.

Some groups have already booked flights in December, said Hauf. Passengers can book flights for next year.