In the News

A new weekly flight from Bush Intercontinental Airport to Havana was announced Thursday as part of the government's historic effort to unwind more than 50 years of political tensions, family divisions, trade embargoes and travel restrictions with Cuba.

The United Airlines flight, tentatively scheduled for Saturdays beginning as early as the fall, positions the city to benefit economically from expanded Cuban travel and trade. Business leaders foresee opportunities for exporting agricultural products, collaborating on health-care research and upgrading the island's aging infrastructure.

"Access is opportunity," said Bob Pertierra, senior vice president and chief economic development officer for the Greater Houston Partnership. He said the flight will enhance "economic and personal ties to Cuba."

United was one of eight U.S. airlines given tentative approval from the Department of Transportation to begin scheduled commercial flights between 10 U.S. cities and Havana, the Cuban capital. The United flight will depart Bush Intercontinental for José Martí International Airport.

Houston and Los Angeles are the only cities west of the Mississippi River granted flights to Havana. Bush Intercontinental, a major hub for United Airlines, will make Cuba a one-stopover flight for 20 other United markets across the central and western U.S. Steve Morrissey, United's vice president of regulatory and policy, said that network helped secure approval.

"We're just thrilled about getting Newark and Houston," Morrissey said. "They were two of our top priorities."

United also was approved to fly daily from Newark, N.J. It was denied a second flight from Newark and weekly flights from Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Tourist travel is still not permitted to Cuba, but the U.S. government earlier this year announced "people-to-people educational travel" as part of President Barack Obama's effort to ease tensions that have persisted since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and instituted a communist regime.

Such moves do not sit well with everyone. Jorge Ferragut, 68, who left Cuba for Spain in 1979 and then moved to Houston, said he disapproves because the government is still a dictatorship that isn't providing basic human rights to its people. Commercial flights will benefit the government, but not its citizens.

"What is the benefit for the Cuban people?" he asked.

Still, competition to fly to Havana was fierce. Twelve U.S. carriers collectively applied for nearly 60 flights per day, exceeding the 20 daily flights made available by the U.S.-Cuba agreement announced in February.

For Houston companies, many already accustomed to doing business in English and Spanish, a scheduled flight would connect people and help build relationships, business leaders said. There's a geographic advantage, too.

"The opportunities are across the board from health care to energy to engineering and general infrastructure," said Felix Chevalier, a Houston lawyer and member of the Texas State Council of Engage Cuba, a nonprofit working to end the travel and trade embargo.

"The airlines would not be petitioning the Department of Transportation to fly to various parts of Cuba if the demand wasn't there," Chevalier said.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which didn't apply for flights from Houston, received tentative approval to fly to Havana from Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Fla.

The Transportation Department has a comment period before its proposals become final. Airlines have 90 days to begin service after that.

The Transportation Department has a comment period before its proposals become final. Airlines have 90 days to begin service after that.

"This all speaks to the level of cultural diversity of Houston, of its global profile, and will eventually provide very significant economic and consumer benefits to Houston-area residents, travelers, businesses and entrepreneurs," Diaz said in a written statement.

Morrissey said United had an outpouring of support in Houston from employees, businesses, elected officials and educational organizations.

U.S. Reps. Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, Houston Democrats who traveled with President Barack Obama to Cuba in March, echoed that confidence for research, academic and business pursuits.

"I can't wait for us to see the rolling and ripple effects," Jackson Lee said.

Businesses are gearing up to take advantage.

"The majority of our members see this as an economic business opportunity in a place that has many, many needs," said Laura Murillo, president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Yet she recognized that many Cuban-Americans may have heart-wrenching experiences with the country and not want to open the doors for travel and trade.

Carlos Abello sees both sides in his family. His parents fled Cuba in 1960, and Abello, 45, was born in Puerto Rico. The Memorial resident has never been to Cuba.

"I want to see where my parents grew up," he said. "Ideally, I would want to go with them."

But his parents refuse to visit while a Castro remains in control. The country is currently ruled by Raul Castro, Fidel's brother.

Abello, executive director of the packaging company Austin Foam Plastics, or AFP, sees business opportunities as well.

"One day, I would love to be able to do business in Cuba," he said.

Fernando Guzman, president and CEO of Prime Eco Group, would also like to enter the untapped market. His Wharton-based company, which has labs in Houston, manufactures chemicals for highway construction and the oil industry. Guzman said Cuba's oil reserves and its aging roadways could add to his company's international business.

Read More Here