Navy ruling ends commercial flights to Guantánamo from South Florida
The Guantánamo Navy commander is halting commercial air passenger service from South Florida to the remote outpost in southeast Cuba, invoking a federal regulation that the Pentagon had apparently waived for years.
Fort Lauderdale-based IBC Travel said Friday that it will cease its several times a week service to and from the base after April 5, on an order from Navy Capt. John “JR” Nettleton to discontinue service by May 1. It will continue weekly cargo flights to the base, said IBC spokesman Richard Rose, with permission from Nettleton.
The airline will also offer $17,000 one-day charters between South Florida and Guantánamo on a case-by-case basis, by agreement with the base commander, Rose said.
Base spokeswoman Kelly Wirfel declined to say whether a specific episode caused the base to abandon commercial service on small aircraft that stretched at least into the 1980s. “After a detailed review of Federal Regulations it has been brought to the attention of the installation commanding officer that allowing IBC Airways to operate out of NS Guantánamo Bay is a violation of regulation 32CFR766,” she said by email.
Rose said the interpretation meant that no commercial operator could provide regular passenger service to the base. IBC was the latest in a series of small South Florida airlines including Tropical Aviation, Air Sunshine and Lynx, which since at least the ’80s been regularly flying the base where about 6,000 residents live today.
The small shuttles that carry about 20 passengers had been a vital air bridge to Guantánamo, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court gave attorneys access to the prisoners in August 2004. The flight also served as a gateway for journalists, entertainers, business executives and contractors who streamed to the base in the years following the establishment of the prison camps in January 2002.
Once IBC stops flying, according to base spokeswoman Wirfel, lawyers and journalists can ask the Defense Department’s Office of Military Commissions for a seat on its weekly flight from Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, D.C. The government mounts the mostly wide-body charter flights for $90,000, usually departing Washington on Monday, according to a May 2012 war court filing. The schedule for return flights varies.
Red Cross delegates who come and go on regular missions to inspect the prison camps where about 1,700 Army guards and staff are responsible for 166 captives can fly on the war-court shuttles as well, Wirfel said.
Attorneys responded with annoyance to the development.
“Of late, the Defense Department has been trying to restrict lawyers’ access to imprisoned clients who do not have pending cases, it has been violating the attorney-client privilege, and now it is eliminating the only non-military route to Guantánamo,” said New York lawyer Ramzi Kassem, who visits the base regularly to meet detainees.
“Having no other options doesn’t just harm the prisoners and their lawyers,” he added. “It also hurts workers, service members and their loved ones.”
American service members and base residents, including foreign laborers from Jamaica and the Philippines, will be able to reach Guantánamo on a special Navy-run shuttle service between Guantánamo, Jacksonville and Norfolk, Va., known on base as “the rotator.” Passengers are required to pay for those flights based on a government formula that dictates different costs for different status of traveler.
It was unclear how the Navy would bring in the entertainers who regularly shuttle to Guantánamo. Some were regularly seen utilizing the South Florida shuttles but also would turn up on dedicated military flights. For example, the Dolphins cheerleaders traveled on a small military flight to the base for a couple of days around the Super Bowl to sign autographs, put on a stage show and teach routines to the children of service members and contractors.
Rose, at IBC, said the airline, which also flies to Haiti, Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean, was disappointed it was losing the route after just receiving FAA certification to use two 30-seat ERJ-145 commuter jets for the Guantánamo route. IBC had been flying to the base using smaller, slower aircraft since August 2011.