MARATHON (CBS4)- U.S. Customs and Border Protection has denied Key West International Airport’s request to accommodate passenger air service to and from Cuba.

The denial, dated May 25, cites the airport’s lack of proper inspection facilities and appropriate or sufficient federal personnel.

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When President Barack Obama eased some restrictions on American travel to Cuba early this year, it raised hopes in Key West that charter flights might soon be able to travel the 90 miles between the two islands. Customs’ decision on the March 22 request temporarily dashed those hopes, according to CBS4 news partner the Miami Herald.

But county Airports Director Peter Horton told the County Commission on Wednesday that he’s confident upgrades planned at the airport will clear the path for flights if the long-standing embargo is lifted.

Horton said the airport is working on the first phase, a $250,000 project to improve security.
He declined to offer specifics, citing security.

Once that work is completed, the airport can expedite a two-phase revamp of the security and Customs facilities to the east of the old terminal. That would double the agency’s square footage and create a larger screening and processing area.

That project’s cost is an estimated $2 million, which will come from federal and state aviation funds and passenger facility charges. The funding is not in place yet, but Horton said Customs’ rejection should help speed it along.

Horton said the project will be completed “as quickly as Customs will approve our plans.”

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Miami-based C&T Charters was one operator interested in providing service to Cuba, but Horton said owner John H. Cabanas is fine with a delay because he wouldn’t be ready to offer the service for six months to a year.

Cabanas, whose company already flies to Cuba from Miami International Airport, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. Current Key West carrier Cape Air expressed interest initially, Horton said, but once it saw the paperwork involved, the company decided to hold off while there’s still an embargo.

Horton said airport facilities are not the only issue.

He said the Customs office, which is also responsible for processing incoming cruise ships, does not have enough staff to handle international commercial aviation, particularly if cruise and airline schedules would overlap.
Gregory McCann, acting director of field operations with the Customs and Border Protection office in Miami, did not return a request for comment by press time.

The Monroe County Tourist Development Council’s Harold Wheeler said the decision is a setback to the TDC’s marketing strategy. The TDC wants to promote the Keys as the place to stay while taking excursions to the island nation, as well as a side trip for travelers to Cuba.

“However, this could be just a delay in the process, with the county finding the funding and adding the needed structure…,” Wheeler said. “This has to get completed, because it is vital to our tourism to have air and marine transportation between the two destinations.”

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