In Depth

U.S.-Cuba commercial flights on the horizon

Kevin Mase, an American Airlines chief pilot, draps a Cuban flag from an AA Boeing 737 on Dec. 16, 2015 — the day the United States and Cuba said they had reached an agreement on restoring commercial air service between the two countries.
Kevin Mase, an American Airlines chief pilot, draps a Cuban flag from an AA Boeing 737 on Dec. 16, 2015 — the day the United States and Cuba said they had reached an agreement on restoring commercial air service between the two countries. American Airlines

American Airlines’ Howard Kass is hopeful that the airline will be flying regularly scheduled service between the United States and Cuba within the first half of this year and says Miami will play a big role in resumption of commercial flights to the island.

U.S. and Cuban officials reached a preliminary agreement Dec. 16 to resume scheduled flights between the two countries for the first time in more than five decades as well as to continue the charter flights that have long served as the only bridge between the United States and Cuba.

Now the documents are being translated and the translations verified — a process that’s expected to take a few more weeks. When the agreement is released, the U.S. Department of Transportation will issue a notice instructing U.S. air carriers how to submit applications for Cuban routes.

The government is expected to approve up to 20 flights a day to Havana and 10 daily for nine other Cuban cities with international airports.

For competitive reasons, the airlines aren’t being too forthcoming about the routes they want to serve. But Kass, American’s vice president of regulatory affairs, said, “I would suspect that Havana would be oversubscribed.”

If that’s the case, there may be a few rounds of back and forth with DOT as airlines make their case why they should be granted specific routes and flight frequencies. DOT will ultimately make the decision, and it’s possible that if there’s not much competition among U.S. carriers for secondary Cuban markets, approval for those destinations might come sooner than for Havana.

Josefina Vidal, who heads the Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry’s U.S. division, told the Cuban News Agency (ACN) last week that once a final agreement is signed, then U.S. airlines must sign contracts with Cubana de Aviación, Cuba’s national carrier, and the Civil Aeronautics Institute. “It’s a complex task, very technical, and the United States must complete various steps, bidding [on routes], because there are many airlines and all have equal rights in terms of market share,” she said.

“We still believe we’ll be flying scheduled service to Cuba within the first half of 2016,” said Kass. “We’re optimistic that DOT will move swiftly to permit U.S. carriers to offer scheduled service.”

American isn’t the only airline interested in Cuba service. JetBlue, United Airlines, Southwest and Delta have all indicated they want to throw their hats into the ring.

“The interest is still standing. We’re just waiting for the government,” said Sarah Lora, Delta’s spokeswoman for Latin America and the Caribbean.

She declined to say which routes Delta is interested in but said she expects the airline’s Atlanta hub to be in its plans.

For American, the name of the game is Miami. “Miami is very important to us — a big part of our plans,” said Kass. “But we’ll also be applying for other U.S. gateways.”

Among other U.S. gateways that might be interesting to carriers are big cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Cuban charter flights also currently serve Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, so they also may figure in commercial airlines’ plans.

With commercial service, passengers from other cities in the U.S. as well as abroad should be able to make “seamless connections” to their Cuba-bound flights, Kass said.

Miami International Airport is already the main embarkation and arrival point for Cuba charters. In 2015, 444,667 passengers departed from MIA on 4,283 charter flights bound for Cuba. Passengers going to and coming from Cuba through MIA topped 907,000 last year, compared to 696,359 in 2014, according to the airport.

Taking a charter flight to Cuba often involves check-in four hours before departure, waiting in line behind luggage carts piled high with televisions and shrink-wrapped parcels and a cumbersome check-in process that involves queuing up numerous times.

Kass said check-in on regularly scheduled flights should improve. “If it works as we anticipated, the process of flying to and from Cuba will be similar to flying to any of our other Latin American destinations. There should be fewer formalities,” he said.

With the embargo still in effect, passengers will still have to show they fall into one of 12 categories of travel authorized by the U.S. government, have a special license from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or must be Cuban-Americans.

As American works on the route proposals it intends to submit to DOT, it has been leasing its planes to charter companies ABC Charters, Cuba Travel Services, Marazul and Xael. In 2015, it operated 1,200 charter flights to Cuba — more than any other U.S. airline.

“We’re already the largest U.S. carrier to Cuba and we intend to remain the largest U.S. carrier in the future,” said Kass.

JetBlue also has been working with charter partners to offer service to Havana from New York’s JFK airport, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa and from Tampa to Santa Clara, Cuba. As commercial service resumes, JetBlue officials say the airline is positioned to be “the carrier of choice for travel to Cuba.”

“Interest in Cuba has reached levels not seen for a generation,” said Scott Laurence, JetBlue’s senior vice president airline planning. When the agreement with Cuba is published, he said, JetBlue will review it “to understand how JetBlue can expand from charter service to regularly scheduled service.

“We hope the next dot on our Caribbean route map will be Havana, and possibly even other destinations in Cuba,” Laurence said.

The understanding between Cuba and the U.S. to resume commercial air service came after three days of negotiations in Washington in December.

A U.S. official involved in the talks said that Cuba made it clear it wants reciprocity — meaning it also would like its airlines to offer scheduled service to the United States. Those familiar with the preliminary document say it does include that principle.

How that works may become clear after the commercial air agreement is released. But Cuba’s desire for reciprocity could be complicated by civil judgments in U.S. courts against the Cuban government that have been filed by those who claim they or family members have suffered abuses at the hands of the Cuban government.

The plaintiffs have won their cases by default because Cuba has chosen not to defend itself. So far, judgments stand at several billion dollars, and if Cuban planes fly to the United States, they are in danger of being seized to satisfy the judgments.

Among the options for the Cuban government and Cubana de Aviación — commonly known as Cubana — would be a code-sharing arrangement with other airlines, leasing aircraft from a third party — an alternative that still might get tied up in litigation, or simply waiting for a less risky environment.

When the agreement goes into force, the airlines of the two countries may enter into cooperative marketing arrangements that include code-sharing and aircraft leases “between them or with third-country airlines,” Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a December statement.

Some of the U.S. airlines vying to serve Cuba have had a long history there, others that flew to Cuba before the revolution no longer exist and some, like JetBlue, were founded well after the 1959 Revolution.

Delta, for example, inherited passenger service to Havana when it merged with Chicago and Southern Air Lines in 1953, and it offered nonstop flights from New Orleans to Havana. Both political instability and profitability issues prompted it to suspend service to Cuba on Dec. 1, 1961.

Since the revolution, Delta has leased its planes for hundreds of charter flights to the island, and last May when the Minnesota Orchestra returned to Cuba for its first performance in 86 years, the musicians and their instruments flew on a charter flight using a Delta plane. It was the first Minneapolis-Havana flight ever.

Cubana also is linked to another storied name in American aviation, Pan American World Airways, which acquired it in 1932 and operated it as a subsidiary. Cubana began offering scheduled passenger service to Miami in 1945, and was expropriated by the Cuban government in May 1959 and became Cuba’s national airline.