Airlines battle to offer scheduled flights to Havana

U.S. air carriers have requested more than 300 regularly scheduled weekly flights from various U.S. cities to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. That’s far more than the slots that are up for grabs. It’s up to the Department of Transportation to sort out the requests.
U.S. air carriers have requested more than 300 regularly scheduled weekly flights from various U.S. cities to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. That’s far more than the slots that are up for grabs. It’s up to the Department of Transportation to sort out the requests. AP

Thirteen U.S. companies are competing for 110 daily flights up for grabs between the United States and Cuba. Most want to provide regularly scheduled passenger service but cargo carrier Federal Express also has filed an application.

Everyone it seems, including Alaska Airlines, wants a piece of Cuba, but mostly they want a slice of Havana. When the Department of Transportation awards the routes, it will be the first time there have been commercial flights between the United States and Cuba in more than 50 years.

Up for grabs are 20 daily routes to Havana and 10 daily flights to nine other Cuban cities with international airports. Unlimited charters also are allowed between the two countries, but it’s expected that regularly scheduled flights will cut into the charter business.

Collectively, the air carriers are asking for more than 300 weekly flights to Havana from various U.S. cities. Given the 20 flights per day limit to Havana and a maximum of 140 weekly slots, there will be a fierce battle for service to the Cuban capital.

Here’s a look at the Cuba routes U.S. carriers have requested:

Federal Express: It wants to operate a daily all-cargo service between Miami and Havana Monday through Friday on a route that would also include a stop in Merida, Mexico, on the return.

“FedEx seeks all-cargo opportunities to expand its network to best serve U.S. businesses, Cuban entrepreneurs, and the people of both countries,” the company said in its filing with DOT. FedEx said it was “critical” that DOT allocate a portion of the routes to all-cargo services. If granted a Havana route, FedEx said it would set up a trucking system to carry freight to three other Cuban cities — Santiago, Varadero and Mariel where a special economic development zone is located.

American Airlines: It has requested 10 daily flights between Miami and Havana and two daily flights from Miami to Santa Clara, Holguin and Varadero as well as daily service from Miami International Airport to Camagüey and Holguín.

It also wants to serve Havana with daily flights from Charlotte and Dallas/Fort Worth and weekly flights from Chicago and Los Angeles.

Dynamic International Airways: Dynamic, which currently operates charters to the Caribbean, Mexico and South America, wants to offer three flights a week between New York’s JFK and Havana, four flights a week between Chicago and Havana, and four flights a week between Los Angeles and Havana.

Frontier Airlines: The ultra low-cost carrier is asking for four daily flights to Havana, one originating in Denver with a stop in Miami, another originating in San Francisco with a stop in Denver, one direct Miami-Havana route and a fourth departing from Atlanta. It’s also interested in a Chicago-Santiago route, a Philadelphia to Camagüey route and a Philadelphia to Santa Clara route.

Alaska Airlines: It wants to offer twice daily service to Havana on a Seattle-Los Angeles-Havana routing and Portland-Havana service via Los Angeles. It said it would begin the Seattle flights as early as Aug. 1 and the Portland route Aug. 28.

Southwest Airlines: It wants six daily flights between Fort Lauderdale and Havana, two daily flights from Tampa to Havana, one daily flight from Orlando to Havana, twice daily service between Fort Lauderdale and Varadero and one flight daily between Fort Lauderdale and Santa Clara.

MN Airlines: The company, which does business as Sun Country Airlines, wants to provide twice weekly service from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Havana with a stop in Fort Myers. It also has requested permission to run seasonal service from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Varadero and seasonal service from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Santa Clara. It also is proposing weekend scheduled service from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Havana.

Spirit Airlines: The discount carrier is requesting two daily routes between Fort Lauderdale and Havana. It said it wants to begin its non-stop service Dec. 1 and primarily use an Airbus A-319 with 145 seats.

Delta Airlines: It is asking for five daily flights to Havana with two originating in Miami and the others in Atlanta, JFK and Orlando.

United Airlines: It has requested daily service between Newark and Havana with one extra flight between the two destinations on Saturdays. It also wants to operate Saturday-only service to Havana from Houston, Washington D.C. and Chicago. In total, it is requesting 11 weekly flights.

JetBlue: It has requested four daily flights from Fort Lauderdale to Havana plus one flight daily to Holguín, Camagüey and Santa Clara from Fort Lauderdale.

Silver Airways: It has applied for service from Key West, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Fort Myers/Naples to Havana and service to nine other Cuban destinations, including the Cayo Coco and Cayo Largo resorts, from Fort Lauderdale.

Eastern Airlines: It has requested one daily flight between Miami and Havana, three weekly flights between Miami and Camagüey, and three weekly flights between Miami and Holguín.

A comment period is now open. After some back and forth with DOT, especially for the carriers that have applied for the same service, the contenders will have an opportunity to file amended applications March 14. They need to make their final and best case for the routes by March 21, and then DOT will begin the process of deciding how the routes will be divvied up.

A final order from DOT is expected by late spring or early summer, but airline executives said they expect decisions on less competitive routes could come sooner.

Regardless of which airlines make the final cut, resuming commercial air service is expected to transform the way that people and goods from the United States get to Cuba. Currently most consumer goods, even big screen TVs, sent to Cuba from the U.S. arrive as the “accompanied baggage” of U.S. visitors to Cuba. Frozen chickens and other authorized foodstuffs generally arrive via ship.

Cuba travel option also are expected to be much more spread out through the United States. Now most charter service is concentrated in Miami. More than 900,000 passengers traveled to and from Cuba through Miami International Airport last year, up from 696,359 the year before.