Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has been authorized to become one of the United States' gateways to Cuba under a new policy allowing charter flights to the island nation.
BWI announced Tuesday that it had been selected as one of eight airports to receive permission to join Miami, New York and Los Angeles in providing the charter flights. The service is being allowed after the Obama administration decided to relax the U.S. ban on direct flights to the communist country.
The new rules announced in January allow expanded travel to Cuba for religious, academic, journalistic and cultural reasons. In 2009, the administration eased restrictions on family reunification travel.
BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said the designation was only a "first step" and that it was not clear if or when the service could begin. He said it is possible that charter service — not regularly scheduled commercial flights — could begin late this year.
"We are grateful that the federal government has approved the application for direct charter service between BWI Marshall Airport and Cuba," said Paul J. Wiedefeld, BWI's executive director. "The authorization can produce expanded access to Cuba for Maryland and the entire national capital region. This service has the potential to benefit many institutions and organizations throughout our region."
Other airports designated as possible gateways Tuesday are in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, New Orleans, Chicago (O'Hare), Pittsburgh, Tampa and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Air travel between the United States and Cuba has been limited since the two nations broke diplomatic relations in 1961 after Fidel Castro nationalized U.S.-owned businesses the previous year.
Dean said he could find no record of service between BWI, which opened in 1950, and Cuba before Castro came to power. He noted that about a decade ago there was an exchange of charter flights between BWI and Havana when the Baltimore Orioles played exhibition games against the Cuban national baseball team.
Steve Sapp, a spokesman for the customs agency, said a number of regulatory hurdles remain — including negotiation of landing rights by the airports and charter companies. Charter companies will also have to go through a licensing process involving multiple federal agencies.
"There's no real timeline," Sapp said.
To be eligible, airports had to apply and meet certain criteria, including having customs and security facilities to process international traffic. Sapp said the first step would be for the airports to select charter companies. Then the airlines would have to negotiate landing rights in Cuba and gain approvals from federal agencies.
Sapp said airports could streamline the process by choosing a carrier already approved to serve Cuba by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Kevin White, director of sales for Miami Air International, a charter operator based in Miami, said an air charter broker with authority to work in Cuba would be required to get federal approvals to operate out of BWI. The broker then would hire a charter operator to fly to Cuba.
"We would be more than happy to fly the flights from Baltimore to Havana, but an air charter broker would have to come to us and ask us to do that," White said. Miami Air has flown charter flights from Miami to Havana, he said.
BWI has a limited number of scheduled international flights but is relatively busy with charter flights. Dean said 148,117 charter passengers passed through BWI in 2010, a 9.7 percent increase over the previous year.
He said the largest charter airlines at BWI last year were World Airways, North American Airlines, Ryan International Airlines, Omni Air International and Miami Air International.
Dean said some charter carriers have indicated an interest in flying between BWI and Cuba.
Baltimore Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.