American aims to be the biggest U.S. player in Cuba travel

Galo Beltran, American Airlines new Cuba country manager, is shown at José Martí International Airport in Havana. He’ll be waiting in Cienfuegos when AA’s first regularly scheduled flight arrives from Miami Wednesday.
Galo Beltran, American Airlines new Cuba country manager, is shown at José Martí International Airport in Havana. He’ll be waiting in Cienfuegos when AA’s first regularly scheduled flight arrives from Miami Wednesday. Courtesy/American Airlines

The last time a regularly scheduled flight between Miami International Airport and Cuba took to the skies was 1961 — a troubled year when the United States and Cuba broke off diplomatic relations and the United States staged the Bay of Pigs invasion.

The last airline to fly a scheduled Havana route was Pan American World Airways, which also made the first scheduled international flight to the island from Key West in 1927.

American Airlines, which on Wednesday will be the first airline to launch scheduled service from MIA in 55 years, didn’t even fly to Cuba in the early 1960s, and almost all the airlines that used to make the short hop between Cuba and the United States have passed into history.

Two other carriers, JetBlue and Silver Airways, which launched scheduled service to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale last week, beat American as the first carriers to restore regular air service between the United States and Cuba.

But American aims to be the biggest U.S. player in Cuba travel. Not only is it launching service to five Cuban cities in less than a week, but the U.S. Department of Transportation has given its approval for four daily flights to Havana from MIA and one daily flight from Charlotte. AA plans to launch its Havana service before the end of the year.

On Wednesday, two American flights — one to Cienfuegos, the other to Holguín — will take off from adjoining gates at MIA, but the Cienfuegos flight will go into the history books as American’s first regularly scheduled flight to Cuba because it will take off 15 minute before the flight to Holguín.

To mark the occasion, there will be a water canon salute on the tarmac, pastelitos and chocolate dominos for the passengers and a Cuban trio providing the soundtrack. There will be similar water canon salutes for the launch of all five of American’s new Cuban destinations.

When the flight arrives in Cienfuegos one hour and 21 minutes later, Galo Beltran, AA’s new Cuba country manager, will be on the ground waiting for it.

“The start of service to new stations is always challenging and starting service to Cuba is particularly challenging,” he said, adding that there are a lot of moving parts and “we have a vested interest in making sure everything is flawless.”

He likened the experience to preparing for a daughter’s wedding: “Now multiply that by five — five daughters marrying at the same time,” Beltran said.

In the past few months, Beltran, who lives in Texas but will be based in Havana, has spent his time visiting Cienfuegos, Holguín, Santa Clara, Camagüey and Varadero to oversee the details of the launches.

American will be offering 56 weekly flights to the Cuban provinces, and when it adds its Havana service, it will have 91 weekly flights to Cuba.

“There will be no other airline in the world that will have as many regularly scheduled flights to Cuba,” said Martha Pantin, who heads AA corporate communications for the Americas.

Currently the leader in airlift to Cuba is Sunwing Airlines, a low-cost Canadian carrier. “Now we hope many Canadians will fly American,” said Pantin.

With American’s connectivity to Europe, Central America and Mexico, “you are going to see people from all over the world using AA to go to Cuba,” she said.

Before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Pan Am was the big player, offering more than two dozen daily flights to Cuba.

Miami always figured heavily in travel to Cuba. During the 1950s, people thought nothing of popping down to Havana for a weekend at the clubs and casinos, and tens of thousands of Cubans used to travel north each year to vacation in Miami and Miami Beach.

But as relations deteriorated between the United States and Cuba after the revolution, Cubans jammed the offices of Pan Am, which had many daily flights to Miami International Airport. However, by September 1961, the airline was running only two daily flights to Miami and Cubans who wanted to leave had to get clearance from the police before they could make reservations.

That fall, the government began to cancel such permissions, forcing the cancellation of flights. A total embargo of trade with Cuba went into effect on Feb. 7, 1962.

Although charter service between the United States and Cuba began in the late 1970s with Miami as the main departure city, it was cut off from time to time when relations between the two countries soured.

The rapprochement between Cuba and the United States that began in December 2014 paved the way for the resumption of regularly scheduled flights. However, the U.S. government still bars tourist visits to the island and only U.S. travelers who fall into 12 specific categories of travel such as those making educational, religious or people-to-people trips are allowed to travel to Cuba.

Although two other airlines launched their new Cuba service before American, inaugurating scheduled service between MIA and Cuba is far more symbolic and freighted with history. Through the decades, MIA has been the scene of countless emotional family reunions.

It was the airport to which Bay of Pigs prisoners were flown after their release, the airport where Freedom Flights that brought some 265,00 Cuban political refugees to the United States from 1965 to 1973 landed, and airport where many Pedro Pan children — unaccompanied Cuban minors being sent to the United States by their parents as Cuba turned toward communism in the early 1960s — caught their first glimpse of the United States.