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Southwest ends flights from Fort Lauderdale to Cuba’s Varadero and Santa Clara

Southwest Airline's new five-gate, international terminal at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was open for a sneak peak Thursday, June 1, 2017. Southwest will cut flights to Cuba’s Varadero and Santa Clara beginning Sept. 5.
Southwest Airline's new five-gate, international terminal at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was open for a sneak peak Thursday, June 1, 2017. Southwest will cut flights to Cuba’s Varadero and Santa Clara beginning Sept. 5. emichot@miamiherald.com

In yet another sign of the struggling airline market to Cuba, Southwest Airlines, one of the few airlines still servicing multiple Cuban cities from South Florida, will stop offering flights to Varadero and Santa Clara.

The change, announced Wednesday, will become effective after Sept. 4. The airline will continue to fly to Havana on its twice daily non-stop flights from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The airline has also applied with the U.S. Department of Transportation for a third daily round-trip flight between Fort Lauderdale and Havana.

The announcement comes less than two weeks since President Donald Trump announced new restrictions on travel to the island. Americans can no longer go on individual people-to-people trips, and are barred from doing businesses with entities that are owned and controlled by Cuba’s military. Exactly how the policy works will depend regulations that have yet to be released.

Americans can no longer go on their own individual people-to-people trips to Cuba, and are now required to go with organized groups. Travelers are also barred from doing businesses with entities that are owned and controlled by Cuba’s military.

However, Southwest stressed that the decision to discontinue its Varadero and Santa Clara flights was due to the challenge of stimulating demand in a new market like Cuba, said spokesman Brad Hawkins in a statement.

“The decision to discontinue these flights is not tied directly to the recent policy announcement, but follows many months of reviewing our performance in the Varadero and Santa Clara markets,” Hawkins said. “Unfortunately, we do not see a pathway to sustainably serving these markets due primarily to the continuing prohibition in U.S. law on tourism to Cuba by American citizens.”

Varadero in particular, a town in the northwestern coast of Cuba, is known for its resorts and pristine beaches — not the cultural, people-to-people experiences in which American travelers are allowed to participate. Under rules established under the Barack Obama administration, Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba for “tourism” but must travel under one of 12 approved categories of travel that include family visits, educational and religious activities.

The decision to discontinue these flights is not tied directly to the recent policy announcement, but follows many months of reviewing our performance in the Varadero and Santa Clara markets.

Brad Hawkins, Southwest spokesman

Since commercial flights to Cuba began in August, most carriers have reduced service to the island or cut service altogether.

In June, both Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines stopped flying to Cuba altogether, ending their Havana flights from Fort Lauderdale for Spirit and Miami for Frontier. Silver Airways slashed all its flights to nine destinations in Cuba in March.

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

American Airlines cut flights from Miami International Airport to Holguín, Santa Clara and Varadero from two daily to one in November. (It remains the only airline offering flights to cities other than Havana from South Florida.) JetBlue Airways moved to smaller planes on several routes, including Fort Lauderdale, to Havana, Santa Clara, Holguín and Camagüey beginning May 3l, dialing back capacity across all routes by 300 seats a day.

As a market with little data in terms of consumer demand, Cuba has proved to be a challenge for airlines. Many overshot demand and were forced to adjust, with some carriers, like Southwest, moving to only Havana routes. JetBlue, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, which offers one daily flight from Miami to Havana, recently applied for additional routes to the Cuban capital.

Travelers who have reservations for flights to Varadero and Santa Clara on Sept. 5 and beyond will receive a refund, Southwest said.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

President Donald Trump powered into East Little Havana and announced a sweeping change in relations intended to rebuke his predecessor’s opening toward the island.

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