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More flights from US spell likely end for Cuba's 'mules'

[MIAMI] The start this week of the first regularly scheduled commercial flights from the United States augurs the likely demise of Cuba's "mules" - suppliers of last resort for scarce consumer goods on the island.

For more than half a century, commercial air travel between Cuba and the United States was all but non-existent, a victim of frosty Cold War-era enmity.

What little air transit there was between the two nations came in the form of charter flights that made a profit not only selling plane seats to approved groups of passengers, but marketing entire travel packages including hotel, car rental and sightseeing tours.

Many travel agencies also squeeze out a profit by shipping light cargo - clothes and consumer appliances - from Cubans in the United States to their relatives on the island.

The packages and parcels - often containing consumer items that are all but impossible to find for most Cubans - are flown to the island for US$5 or US$10 per pound via charter flight.

The practice is not illegal in Cuba, so long as the value of the wares are within customs limits.

The items can include "televisions, microwave ovens, bicycles or an air conditioner," a travel agency owner told AFP.

"In Cuba, we need everything." It's an arrangement that works out well for everyone: Consumers in Cuba get access to sought-after goods and travel agencies get to pad their profits.

Mules benefit as well, typically getting to travel to Cuba for a deeply discounted price of around US$100 - about one fourth the usual cost for a seat on a charter flight.

Charter companies over the years have been more than happy to allow to fly planes to the island groaning with heavy luggage and boxes.

"Have you seen those flights?" asked Frank Gonzalez, owner of Miami's Mambi Tour.

"It was practically a cargo business," he said of the Florida-to-Cuba charter flights.

In this new era of US-Cuba normalisation, all of that now appears poised to change, as flight options multiply.

Washington and Havana agreed in February to restore direct commercial flights, one of the watershed changes initiated in December 2014, when US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro announced a thaw after more than 50 years of Cold War hostility.

Jet Blue flies the first commercial plane on Wednesday from Fort Lauderdale to the central Cuban city of Santa Clara.

Other US air carriers planning to start airline service to the island include American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines.

In another development expected to hasten the demise of the mule, FedEx is due to arrive in Cuba beginning next year, giving those who hope to send their loved ones food, medicine and clothing another way to do so.

One Florida-based charter operator said the opening up of commercial flights has led his company to scale back its charter flights already.

"We will stop operating charter flights in September and October," said Michael Zuccato, general manager at Cuba Travel Services.

"We may operate flights again in December... but we are changing the way we are operating," Mr Zuccato said.

"Unless you can bundle the package together, the charter flight doesn't make a lot of sense. And right now the majority of the passengers are Cuban Americans going to visit family, so they don't require those kinds of services."

Even though charter operators expect to be hurt by the change, travel agents say they expect to sell more packages than ever, since Cuba remains a somewhat unusual and complicated travel destination - particularly for curious Americans eager to travel to the once-forbidden communist island.