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"San Juan, San Juan, here we come... right back where we started from..."


FORT MYERS — Area residents could soon have direct flights to Puerto Rico.

Southwest Florida International Airport officials are considering offering flights to San Juan, Puerto Rico, within a couple years to meet demand. There is also talk of adding flights to other parts of Latin America as well, although officials didn’t reveal which countries.

“There is definitely interest in nonstop flights to San Juan,” said Carol Obermeier, director of aviation market development. “We just feel that Southwest Florida’s strong business and ethnic population would use the nonstop service to San Juan.”

For the past two weeks, airport officials have been requesting letters of support for the flights from local business and universities.

Officials also want to talk to air carriers about cruise ship tourism from the port in San Juan.

To start, officials are proposing two to three direct flights weekly to San Juan as well as other parts of Latin America.

“I would love it,” said Diana Cintron, who travels to Puerto Rico two to three times a year to visit her in-laws. “It would be fabulous.”

Cintron, a Lehigh Acres resident, drives to Fort Lauderdale to get a flight to Puerto Rico on Spirit Airlines, at a cost of about $200.

Cintron said she wouldn’t mind spending more money on a flight directly from Fort Myers since she already has to spend money on parking fees when she drives to another airport.

Airport officials are hoping to have the flights to San Juan started in one or two years.

“If it happened before a year or two we will be happy about it,” Obermeier said, adding that the time frame would also depend on the economy picking up.

Two years ago, about two to three people were traveling to the Caribbean a day from Southwest Florida International Airport, but officials knew that customers were driving to other airports to avoid connecting.

In August 2007, officials conducted a survey online and found that an estimated 1,000 people would spend an additional $75 to $95 for a direct flight to Puerto Rico instead of driving to another airport or taking connecting flights.

Since the survey was conducted, officials have been talking with many of the air carriers, including charter companies and low cost carriers, such as Southwest Airlines, AirTran Airways, JetBlue and American Airlines.

With the current economy, Obermeier said they have to really present a strong case for the carriers to commit.

“We honestly feel that whatever airline starts the flight, it would be a win-win situation,” she said.

Southwest Florida International Airport customers flying to Puerto Rico use American Eagle and then make a connection in Miami.

On average, the fares to San Juan have decreased from $450 more than a year ago to about $399.

As the airport works on proposals with air carriers, the Hispanic leaders say the community has been supportive.

With tremendous growth in the area’s Hispanic population, Southwest Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce officials say they support direct flights to San Juan and Latin America because many people travel for both business and pleasure.

Having a direct flight would increase travel to Puerto Rico as well as bring more investors and tourism to Southwest Florida, said Veronia Culbertson, president of the chamber’s board.

“We should be an alternative to Miami and have people come here,” Culbertson said.

The airport has also been working with the Puerto Rico Tourism Company in Puerto Rico.

In a few years, Southwest Florida International Airport will start looking to expand to central and south America, officials said.

In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 80,589 Hispanics lived in Collier County, a 2.98 percent increase from 2006 and a 63.48 percent increase from 2000. As of July 1, 2007, 101,530 Hispanics lived in Lee County, a 12.29 percent increase from 2006 and a 141.5 percent increase from 2000, census data shows.

Leonardo Garcia, president and CEO of the Hispanic American Business Alliance, said direct flights to Puerto Rico from Southwest Florida International Airport would open many opportunities for business, tourism and education. He added that it could boost the local economy and benefit both areas.

Once there’s a successful flight, Garcia said other airlines would begin providing services to Latin America and Central America.

There needs to be a push in Southwest Florida for international business opportunities, Garcia said.

For the past 10 years, Cape Coral resident Norm Mather, 68, has traveled with his wife to San Juan about three times a year for leisure.

The couple usually drives to Miami to catch a flight to Puerto Rico, with ticket prices ranging from $250 to $400.

Mather echoed Cintron about paying higher air rates for a direct flight instead of driving to another airport.

“I would take it in a minute,” he said.

Businesses interested in supporting the direct flights can e-mail Culbertson at
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