As the Obama administration eases travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, domestic airlines are gearing up to offer more direct flights to the island.
Regular commercial air travel to Cuba has been heavily restricted since 1963. But last month, the U.S. restored formal diplomatic ties with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years. And with the formal reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana last week, many expect the travel ban to be lifted soon.
David Bach, a senior lecturer in global business and politics at the Yale School of Management, said that regular commercial air service is essential to the process of renewing ties between the estranged countries.
“Politically, it’s incredibly symbolic,” he said.
Airlines aren’t waiting for Congress to lift the embargo, though. They’ve already expanded charter flights to Cuba or announced plans to do so. Charter flights are not part of an airline’s regular schedule.
American Airlines said Tuesday that it would begin nonstop service later this year between Los Angeles and Havana, Cuba’s first direct connection to the West Coast in many years. The airline has operated charter flights to Cuba since 1991.
The charter flights will operate on Saturdays beginning Dec. 12 with Boeing 737s. American plans to offer another Saturday charter flight from Miami to Havana.
Last month, JetBlue began direct charter service from New York’s JFK International, building on its existing charter flights from Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.
United, Delta and Southwest don’t currently operate charter flights to Cuba, but spokespersons for all three airlines indicated Tuesday that they were considering it.
While there were reports late Monday that the Obama administration would act on its own authority to enable regular air service by year’s end, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the embargo remains in place.
“No decisions have yet been made,” Kirby said.
Officials with the U.S. and Cuba started civil aviation talks months ago but still must come to a bilateral agreement determining how much air service both countries will allow.
Airlines that already serve Cuba with charter operations are preparing for restrictions to be eased while they wait for the resolution of those discussions.
“We’re watching it just like you are,” said Scott Laurence, senior vice president of airline planning at JetBlue. “But obviously we’re putting a lot of plans on the shelf and making sure we’re prepared for any eventuality.”
He said the airline has been flying charters to Cuba since 2011 in part to gain the experience that would allow for quick action if the market opened up. He said that typically, the airline can move in six months or less when a market opens.
“We’re ready to go, and I think we’re just waiting on the process,” Laurence said. He said he just couldn’t predict when the process might reach the go point.
“I will tell you I am on the edge of my seat,” he said. “We’re incredibly excited about this.”
At American Airlines, the best guess points to scheduled service starting in the fairly near future.
“We’ve always said that we thought that by 2016, there would be scheduled service between the United States and Cuba,” said Howard Kass, American’s vice president for regulatory affairs. “Once we get the green light, we’re ready to go.”
He said Tuesday that it was too early to say from which airports — other than Miami — the airline would serve Cuba.
“We know Miami’s going to be a strong market both because of the local demand as well as the great American hub in Miami,” Kass said. “So we know that’s going to be very important.”
This year, American expects to operate about 1,200 charter flights to Cuba, up 9 percent from 2014.
Under current law, U.S. tourism to Cuba remains prohibited. U.S. citizens could visit Cuba under a narrow set of categories, such as family visits, official U.S. government business and journalistic activity. On Jan. 15, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that citizens who fall under 12 categories of authorized travel — including educational activities, public performances, support for the Cuban people and humanitarian projects — would not need to apply for specific licenses to go to Cuba.
It would take legislation from Congress to totally lift restrictions. Similar bills in the U.S. House and Senate have at least 40 bipartisan co-sponsors each.
Observers expect further changes to travel restrictions in the meantime, including potentially allowing travelers to visit under authorized “people-to-people” exchanges individually instead of with a group.
Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, said the thawed relations have required much less paperwork and vetting from his company. But he knows the company’s role in Cuba travel will be in flux.
“To comprehend the differences in what’s going on right now and to make a place for ourselves in this new scenario is very challenging,” said Guild, who is based in New Jersey.
In the meantime, his company is hiring more workers and expanding services in its Miami office to accommodate an “unbelievable” spike in travel demand.
Between January and June, Guild said, the number of people the company has sent to Cuba increased 40 percent compared to last year. And twice as many groups have requested and been confirmed to travel between now and 2017 compared to last year, he said.
“We’re all crazed,” Guild said.
Even with the long-standing U.S. embargo, Havana’s José Martí International Airport serves 4 million passengers a year with 25 carriers.
Air Canada, for example, flies to Havana and five other Cuban cities.
Though it cannot land at any U.S. airports, Cubana Airlines flies directly from Havana to Montreal, Toronto and Mexico City, as well as numerous destinations in Europe and Latin America.
U.S. charter flights operate out of their own terminal at Martí airport. Transitioning to regular service wouldn’t be difficult, according to Tom Reich, director of air service development at AFCO AvPorts Management, an aviation consulting firm in Dulles, Virginia.
The only potential hurdle is hiring a ground staff, which could consist of workers already handling the charter flights or a company that would act as the airline’s ground staff.
“Neither are show-stoppers considering the current charters to Havana are already being ground-handled by someone,” Reich said.
Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta, said the carrier supports efforts to allow commercial service to resume and looks “forward to serving the market when the opportunity becomes available.”
While United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said the company doesn’t currently operate charter flights, he said it would pursue commercial service once that becomes possible.
Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest, said the largest U.S. domestic carrier had no immediate plans to offer service to Cuba, but called it “a good future opportunity.”
Experts believe that scheduled service would be less costly than charter flights, making travel to the island accessible to more people.
“It will make a world of difference for passengers traveling to Cuba, schedule-wise and also price-wise,” said Vivan Mannerud, CEO of Airline Brokers Co. in Hialeah, which arranges trips to Cuba. “It would be normal, just like travel anywhere in the world. That’s the way it should be.”
Miami Herald staff writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.