Passengers eager to travel to Cuba on commercial U.S. airlines won’t be able to book flights as they would for any other destination just yet.
Beginning Friday, U.S. regulations will no longer prohibit air carriers from scheduling regular flights to Cuba, the Obama administration announced Thursday. In practice, however, establishing regular air travel will take some time — though charter flights that have existed for years will continue.
Still, the announcement prompted a warm response from airlines. One of them, United Airlines, named the airport hubs it plans to propose for Cuba flights.
“We plan to serve Cuba, subject to government approvals, and look forward to doing so from our global gateways of Newark and Houston,” spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said in a statement.
Before any routes are established, the U.S. Department of Transportation must sit down with the Cuban government to negotiate a civil aviation agreement spelling out the rules for air travel between the two countries. Until that happens, the new rules will be on hold, the department said in a notice Thursday.
The existing agreement dates back to 1953 and has essentially been dormant for a half century. Civil aviation agreements can cover any number of issues, ranging from how many flights are permitted to how airlines can import needed maintenance parts.
It’s unclear how such an agreement might comply with the 54-year-old U.S. trade embargo, which can only be lifted by Congress and generally prohibits American companies from doing business in Cuba. Obama administration officials said Thursday that the new rules comply with the law, though they didn’t explain the nuts and bolts of how air carriers might deal with issues such as purchasing fuel, renting ticketing space and paying airport landing fees.
Like United, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines also expressed interest Thursday in the new regulations, though they also noted that it’s too early to get into specifics.
“We are reviewing the changes to the Cuba travel policy and will continue to be guided by the laws and policies of the U.S. government and the governments of the countries we serve as they evolve,” said American, the largest carrier at Miami International Airport.
If the U.S. and Cuba reach an aviation deal, the details will be crucial for airlines. An agreement could set an open relationship, with no restrictions on the number of carriers, flights or destinations, for example, or it could limit travel in some or all of those areas. A restrictive agreement could then require the Department of Transportation to decide, based on carriers’ proposals, which U.S. airlines could fly to what airports and when.
Cuba would presumably also try to negotiate new markets for its government-run airline, Cubana de Aviación, though aviation-industry officials in the U.S. say Cubana’s planes would likely first require extensive upgrades.
Americans who fall under certain permitted travel categories have been able to book trips to Cuba on charter flights that often use major airlines’ off-duty planes. The charters will continue, at least until the new rules take effect. Once airlines start flying regularly to the island, travelers will no longer need to go through middlemen charter companies or travel agents, most of them based in Miami.
That would make it easier — and cheaper — to fly, but also likely hurt the charter companies’ business.