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Florida-Cuba travel is in flux. Some airlines want in and others opt out.

JetBlue’s historic flight to Cuba

On Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to initiate commercial flights with Cuba, kicking off with a flight from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Santa Clara, Cuba, in more than 50 years.
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On Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to initiate commercial flights with Cuba, kicking off with a flight from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Santa Clara, Cuba, in more than 50 years.

Air travel to Cuba is in flux with some U.S. carriers dropping out of competition for routes and others hoping to win approval for additional flights to the island.

But there’s still keen interest in South Florida routes to Havana, and Miami International Airport has become the most important gateway for commercial air travel to Cuba.

The most recent carrier to fall by the wayside in the competition for Cuba routes is FedEx. After asking the Department of Transportation for three extensions on its start date for cargo and mail flights that would fly five times weekly between Miami and Matanzas, FedEx told DOT in December that it was no longer interested in the route and was returning its flight frequencies while it “evaluates alternative all-cargo service options to Cuba.”

After 55 years, American Airlines begins scheduled commercial service between Miami and Cuban cities of Cienfuegos and Holguín.

Southwest Airlines also told DOT in late December that it was no longer interested in adding a second daily route from Tampa to Havana, saying that it preferred to concentrate its efforts on winning approval to begin service to Hawaii.

“Given that focus and overall capacity constraints, Southwest is unfortunately not in a position to apply for the U.S.-Cuba frequency at this time,” said Dallas-based Southwest in a DOT filing.

Southwest had initially been interested in picking up a second Tampa route after American Airlines announced last year that it planned to end its Charlotte, N.C.-Havana service because of low volume.

But instead of returning the flight frequency to DOT, thus allowing other airlines to bid for it, American asked DOT if it could shift its North Carolina-Havana route to a noontime flight from Miami, which would give American six daily Miami-Havana flights. It wants to serve the route with a 160-passenger Boeing 737-800.

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Regularly scheduled service to Havana from the U.S. kicked off in November 2016. A member of American Airlines’ flight crew on the inaugural trip is shown here. José A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

In its DOT filing, American cited “persistently strong demand” for additional Miami-Havana service and said Miami-Dade County, where half of the nation’s Cuban Americans reside, “is the only gateway that is underserved relative to its share of demand.”

“No Havana gateway has performed better than Miami and no Havana service has performed better than American’s MIA-HAV service,” the airline said. Miami-Havana service, American said, had a load factor of 83 percent, compared to runnerup Tampa with 76 percent in the year ending in June 2018. The Charlotte route only had a load factor of 53 percent.

However, American ran into opposition to that plan — initially from Southwest but also from JetBlue. Before deciding to concentrate on launching its Hawaiian service, Southwest wanted DOT to award it the Charlotte frequency so it could add the second daily flight from Tampa to Havana.

JetBlue said in a filing this month that if AA is allowed to shift the Charlotte route, it will have six daily Miami-Havana flights, “more than double the amount that JetBlue (or any other carrier) operates in any single U.S.-Havana market.” Such a shift would result in “a near monopoly level of service,” JetBlue said, that would negatively impact other carriers’ routes from South Florida to Havana.

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Passengers wave Cuban flags on JetBlue’s inaugural commercial flight to Cuba on Aug. 31, 2016. Now JetBlue wants to add more service to Havana. Donald Traill AP Images for JetBlue

JetBlue is asking that it be awarded an additional daily flight from Fort Lauderdale to Havana that would begin on May 1 or at least be allowed to add a second Saturday flight from Fort Lauderdale in order to “restore competitive balance.” It also pointed out that unlike some other carriers, it has not returned any of its U.S.-Cuba flight frequencies.

However, in a Jan. 7 filing with DOT in rebuttal to JetBlue, American insisted that allowing it an additional Miami-Havana flight would provide the most public benefit. The “inescapable conclusion,” it said, is that “passengers overwhelmingly prefer American’s MIA-HAV service” to JetBlue’s Fort Lauderdale-Havana service. That route, American said, “has suffered from a scarcity of passengers and overabundance of empty seats.”

The stampede to begin regularly scheduled air service to Cuba began during the Obama administration. Not wanting to be left out as the first commercial airline service in more than 50 years resumed on Aug. 31, 2016, airlines eagerly competed for the 20 available slots for round-trip travel between the United States and Cuba.

Many carriers assumed the opening toward Cuba that began under former President Barack Obama would continue and it would only be a matter of time before the embargo was lifted. But U.S.-Cuba relations have cooled during the Trump administration with a stiffening of business and travel regulations and expected demand didn’t materialize. A number of airlines that were awarded routes by DOT have dropped service to some provincial airports in Cuba and from new U.S. markets.

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American Airlines plans to begin flying a Miami-Santiago de Cuba route on May 3. The Santiago port is shown here. el Nuevo Herald

American Airlines, meanwhile, plans to inaugurate new Miami-Santiago de Cuba service on May 3. American said it polled the other carriers about launching service to Antonio Maceo Airport in eastern Cuba and none of the other airlines objected. It will be American’s sixth destination in Cuba.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Mimi Whitefield has covered Latin America and the Caribbean for more than two decades. The Miami Herald’s former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief and a 2017 winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, she now focuses on Cuba coverage.

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