Miami and Fort Lauderdale are two of 10 cities — including four in the state of Florida — that have won tentative U.S. government approval to schedule commercial air service between the United States and Havana, Cuba, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Thursday.
The proposed airlines could begin flights as early as the fall. The DOT announced that it plans to have a final decision by the end of the summer. The public will have a 30-day public comment period.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the move “an important step forward...to reengage Cuba. “Restoring regular air service holds tremendous potential to reunite Cuban American families and foster education and opportunities for American businesses of all sizes,” he said via a release.
The other eight cities approved for daily non-stop flights are Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York City, Orlando and Tampa. A total of 20 flights were approved.
Eight airlines — Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United — would offer service to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport under the agreement. They were chosen from applications by a dozen airlines, which requested a total of 60 daily flights.
Miami International Airport and the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport would carry more than half of the available daily Havana flights — 11 on Saturdays and 12 spread over the other six days of the week.
The competitive Havana route has been the subject of intense speculation since early 2016, when applications were first accepted. Last month, the department awarded approval to six airlines for the less-contested routes to nine cities other Cuban cities.
Under the tentative agreement, Miami International Airport and the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport would carry more than half of the available daily Havana flights — 11 on Saturdays and 12 spread over the other six days of the week. DOT said it had given priority to airports that serve areas with substantial Cuban-American populations.
The majority would go to American Airlines from MIA. Delta and Frontier would each also have one daily roundtrip flight to Havana.
At Fort Lauderdale, Spirit and Southwest would each have two daily flights. JetBlue would also have two flights six days a week and one on Saturday.
While American Airlines requested the most flights — 10 daily between Miami and Havana, plus eight more to Santa Clara, Holguín, Varadero, Camagüey and Cienfuegos — it received approval for only four daily roundtrip flights from Miami to Havana, with an additional route from Charlotte Douglas International Airport. In June, the airline received approval to fly to the other five requested Cuban destinations, giving it a total of 13 daily flightsthe most of any airline.
American is Miami’s largest carrier, responsible for about 66 percent of passenger traffic.
“American has a rich history in the Cuban market and we are excited to continue to be a leader in providing air service between the United States and Cuba,” said Andrew Nocella, American’s chief marketing officer, in a statement.
American will inaugurate scheduled service to the island in September, with the first flights departing MIA for Cienfuegos and Holguín on Sept. 7.
Pending final DOT and Cuban approval, American’s Havana service is expected to begin in November, before the winter high tourist season.
The announcement means likely changes for charter companies that for decades have been the sole providers of Cuba flights — most out of Miami. More than 900,000 passengers traveled to and from Cuba through MIA in 2015, up from 696,359 the year before.
The eight airlines that received approval to fly to Havana are Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United.
Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, said charters will likely move into a supplemental position for flights to Cuba, reducing their routes and fares once commercial flights come online. But they won’t disappear altogether, he said, because demand to visit the island remains high.
From January to December 2015 alone, Marazul saw a 60 percent increase in the number of people traveling to Cuba for trips other than family visits, Guild said.
“There is tremendous public support about this opening of Cuba,” Guild said.
Commercial air service between the U.S. and Cuba has been prohibited since 1960. In December 2014, President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions to allow travel agents and carriers to book flights to Cuba without first obtaining permission from the U.S. government. Travel is permitted under 12 categories, including visiting family, cultural exchange and educational reasons — but not tourism.
Nevertheless, Americans have been flocking to the island nation for cultural exchanges, according to a survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute in Midwest Florida.
An online survey of 1,001 national respondents between June 10 and 16 found that 42.9 percent were very or somewhat interested in visiting Cuba. The reason most cited: general curiosity.
To accommodate the interest, charters will likely assume more competitive rates, Guild said. The average charter flight to Cuba now costs $400 to $460. American’s first scheduled September flight to Holguín costs about $286.
Until Cuba improves their tourism product to American standards and adds more inventory, [travel to the island] won’t happen.
John Heather, Saint Leo professor of international tourism and hospitality management
Guild said Marazul is also working closely with American, JetBlue and United to secure seats for their tour groups on commercial flights.
Once travelers arrive, they will contend with the biggest challenge Cuba’s tourism industry will face once the floodgates open: hotel accommodations. Cuba has an inventory of only about 63,000 hotel rooms. By comparison, Greater Miami alone has nearly 52,000 hotel rooms.
“Until Cuba improves their tourism product to American standards and adds more inventory, [travel to the island] won’t happen,” said John Heather, a Saint Leo professor of international tourism and hospitality management, in a release.
Guild said hotels across the island nation have raised rates, which will create a speed bump for the travel motorcade, until the number of hotel rooms catches up with demand. Rooms in private homes — called casas particulares — offer a more cost effective option and offset some of the lack in supply.
Change may be coming: Cuba said in April that is plans to build 108,000 new hotel rooms by 2030. In the meantime, cruise ships, which have built-in accommodations, offer some relief. In May Carnival Corp.’s Fathom cruise line began sailing to the island on bi-monthly voyages — the first U.S. cruise trips in more than 50 years.