JetBlue flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara in Cuba on 31 August marked a breakthrough in the 55-year impasse between the USA and the Caribbean island. It was the first scheduled US passenger service since the revolution which swept Fidel Castro to power and caused a fearful Washington to break diplomatic and trading relations. Eight other US airlines have been given the go-ahead to operate to the capital Havana. However, while the resumption of commercial airline services has dominated the headlines, private aviation has also been quietly playing its part in opening air links between the two countries since the start of the year.

When in January President Obama removed Cuba from a list of countries Americans were largely prohibited from travelling to or doing business with, it was a moment Eric Norber had been waiting 26 years for. The former pilot had begun travelling (legally) to the country in 1990 and researching the myriad regulations around who was eligible to go there and why. He began developing an “incredible” network of contacts and created an organisation to help his fellow US citizens visit Cuba. What began as a “bit of a hobby” has evolved – since January – into a specialist private aviation travel provider, Cuba Handling.

Norber, who will present a conference session at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) on private travel to Cuba at 09:00 on 2 November, has now taken on several staff to deal with a surge in demand. His team provides handling and other logistics services to operators of N-registered aircraft in Cuba, as well as facilitating the sort of itineraries that will allow these operators’ passengers to be granted a visa and stay on the right side of US law. Despite the existence of several upmarket resorts and a growing leisure sector for non-US travellers, pure tourism for US citizens is still banned. Instead, Americans must travel under one of 13 permitted categories.

These categories include religious, humanitarian, cultural and sporting visits. In reality, this means most US visitors must produce a schedule that shows a reason to visit beyond sitting around the pool or in Havana cafes drinking rum daiquiris. That is where firms such as Norber’s come in, organising everything from business exchanges to cultural itineraries. For users of private aviation, that will usually not mean hopping on a packed tour bus in the company of a state tour guide. “We deal with high-net-worths who are seeking a very special experience in Cuba,” says Norber. “We are able to deliver in a very upscale manner.”

These itineraries can unlock the treasures of a culturally rich but eccentric country few Americans have experienced. A major change since January has been that those visiting under the people-to-people exchange category can now organise their own itineraries rather than having to travel with a group, says Norber. He admits, however, that guidelines can be confusing. While flying in to attend a public concert would breach the rules, hiring a house and a renowned musician for a private recital might not be. Going to a beach would be touristic, but “travelling to a coastal region to have a meaningful conversation about erosion or surfing techniques would be allowed”, he suggests.

US-based trip service provider Universal Weather and Aviation had been working in Cuba as a “certified travel provider” since about 2010, authorised by both the US and Cuban governments to provide assistance with itineraries and logistics. However, since the easing of sanctions, the Houston-based company – which provides everything from fuel to flight plans and in-flight catering to its worldwide customer base – has been doing “quite a bit more work”, handling more than 100 US flights into the country so far in 2016, compared with “low single figures” in previous years, says director of compliance Kathy Self.

However, while she acknowledges that the company does not yet know “the full extent of the opportunity”, she cautions both operators and their customers that travel to Cuba – for Americans in particular – is still highly regulated. “It’s a misnomer that Cuba is suddenly open,” she says. “People thought that because the Rolling Stones were playing, it was open [the rock band performed a landmark concert in March after being invited by the Cuban government]. It’s not. You couldn’t just buy a ticket [from abroad] and go to watch. The past few months have been an educating experience for our clients, but we stress that it is still an economically sanctioned country.”

Universal, which operates from 26 locations globally, helps ensure that operators travelling to Cuba “know the risks and have the right paperwork”, she says. Generally, charter providers can show that they have done due diligence, the onus is on the end-client to stick to the rules. “As long as the passenger is vouching that they are travelling for a legitimate reason, such as educational or professional visits, visiting art exhibitions and so on, the operator is clear,” she says. “But the trickiest part of the whole operation is that we have to be sure that we are complying with the US side of the law.”

Norber is also conservative about the potential of the market for upmarket US visitors to Cuba, citing a lack of premium accommodation. “What might be acceptable to budget travellers is not going to work for those coming on private aviation,” he says. The capitalist rules of supply and demand have been driving up hotel prices in this bastion of communism. That said, there are “VVIP private rentable villas with butlers and kitchen staff”, he says. “The Cuban government has allowed certain businesses to operate in the self-employment sector, so home-owners can employ staff. These are usually not on anyone’s radar except for a company like mine that has curated these assets.”

For operators seeking a way through the maze of rules, NBAA provides an excellent regularly updated web page at These are just some of the things to be aware of:

·US travel providers cannot provide services to non-US operators or passengers, even if they are flying on or operating an N-registered aircraft – unless for humanitarian or governmental flights.

·US Customs & Border Protection has a list of airports authorised to handle customs clearance from Cuba, and operators must pre-clear flights to and from Cuba via any other airports with the CBP.

·Aircraft generally cannot stay in Cuba more than seven days, but crew are permitted to remain in the country for the duration and “engage in travel-related transactions that support the trip”.

·Companies flying passengers to Cuba must confirm their passengers are authorised to travel. This can be satisfied by obtaining a signed certification from the traveller.

·An aircraft landing application must be submitted to the Cuban civil aviation authority and landing clearance granted before the aircraft departs the USA. The application must include the name and contact details of the local business contact in Cuba, who will be contacted by the authority to verify the purpose of the visit before the landing clearance is issued.

·If an aircraft breaks down, a part can be shipped to Cuba, so long as the aircraft had travelled lawfully to the country. Any inertial navigation component would need a specific export licence. Defective parts must be returned or destroyed.

For all the latest coverage from NBAA check out our dedicated landing page

Source: Flight Daily News