News: Iberia quits Florida hub; Cuba braced for American invasion

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Iberia quits Florida hub

Iberia quits Florida hub

Stringent immigration and security procedures for transit passengers in the United States have led Iberia to abandon its hub operation in Miami. The Spanish airline currently flies two jumbo jets each day from Madrid to Miami, from where it offers connections to Latin American destinations. But Iberia is to drop one of the flights from 1 October - blaming new controls introduced since 11 September 2001: "We have lost a lot of passengers," said a spokesman for the airline.

The airline's Miami hub started in 1991. For a decade, Iberia passengers were allowed to use a transit lounge at the Florida airport, with no need to go through US immigration and customs, nor to reclaim baggage. It was even possible to smoke in the lounge. But following the terrorist attacks on America, "Transit Without Visa" privileges were suspended. Under the new rules, every passenger must undergo full frontier formalities, even if they intend merely to change planes. Many travellers are obliged to obtain a US visa purely for the transit stop - a procedure that requires an interview at a US embassy or consulate, and costs $100.

In October, Iberia will introduce a new direct flight from Madrid serving two key Central American capitals, Guatemala City and Panama City. Connections in the Spanish capital will be available from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester.

A single daily flight from Madrid to Miami will continue, but travellers aiming for destinations such as San José in Costa Rica and Managua in Nicaragua will be encouraged to transfer at Guatemala City or Panama City.

"The Miami operation is getting a lot more complicated, with transit times of up to three hours," said Iberia's spokesman. "That is a lot of money lost."

"We've seen increasing resistance to transitting the US to reach Latin America," says David Gilmour of the London-based specialist travel agent South American Experience. Many customers are now choosing to travel to Latin America on European airlines such as Air France/ KLM, Air Portugal or Iberia rather than choosing to take the long-established links on Continental via Houston and American Airlines via Miami.

* A new option to reach Peru should become available in October. Lan - the airline founded in Chile that now operates in much of western South America - is to start a non-stop flight between Madrid and Lima. Lan is part of the Oneworld alliance; accordingly, British Airways and Iberia will offer connections from the UK.

Iberia: 0845 850 9000; www.iberiaairlines.co.uk

Lan: 0800 917 0572; www.lan.com

South American Experience: 020-7976 5511; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk

Cuba braced for American invasion

The first direct flight from the UK to Cuba's second city, Santiago de Cuba, was due to touch down last night. The Excel Airways Boeing 767 is flying weekly from Gatwick to the island. But the result of the US presidential election on 2 November could mean British travellers are priced out of the most attractive places to stay on the island. If the Kerry-Edwards ticket wins the White House, one of the first acts of the Democratic presidency will be to encourage travel to Cuba.

The Caribbean's largest island is not touched by the strong American influence that affects most destinations in the region. The US government prohibits American citizens from taking vacations in Cuba, as part of the economic embargo that has been trying unsuccessfully to topple Fidel Castro for more than 40 years.

As a result, Cuba depends for tourism on visitors from Europe, Canada and Latin America. But John Kerry, the Democrat candidate for the presidency, is set to reverse the travel ban - which he calls "a cynical and misguided ploy for a few Florida votes". Mr Kerry says "the best way to communicate American ideals to Cubans is to let Americans and Cubans talk face to face", and says he will encourage "principled travel" to the island.

A leading tour operator to Cuba, John Kelly of Voyager Travel, says if 270 million Americans are suddenly able to visit the island, it will change drastically: "It is inevitable that one day US policy will be reversed. This, and a weak dollar, mean that now is the best time ever to visit Cuba."

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