American Airlines has been flying to five Cuban cities for just over a month but so far its regularly scheduled flights to the island are often less than half full.
With 56 weekly flights to Cuba already and five more daily flights to Havana scheduled to begin in late November, American is betting big on the Cuban market.
Other major airlines are expected to enter the market and fly to multiple Cuban cities later this year, but the only other U.S. companies currently flying scheduled flights to Cuba are Silver Airways and JetBlue and their offers are modest compared to American’s.
American has two flights daily from Miami to Holguín, Varadero, and Santa Clara and daily service to Camagüey and Cienfuegos. But out of 46 AA flights this week through mid-afternoon Friday, 38 were more than half empty and some carried as few as 12 or 13 passengers, according to Cuban Customs records.
With U.S. tourism still officially banned, there are far more seats available than passengers. The United States allows only 12 categories of travelers to visit Cuba.
“There is a lot of lift,” said Fernand Fernández, American’s vice president of global marketing, “but there is also 50 years of pent-up demand to explore the beauties of Cuba. A lot of people have the idea that Havana is really it, but the provincial cities are such an important part of what Cuba is and they are unknown to most Americans.”
American wants to help passengers get to know the cities outside Havana, and one of its strategies is enlisting travel agents to help sell the Cuban destinations. Last month, when American launched its service to the five Cuban cities in the space of five days, it took dozens of travel agents on familiarization tours to each of the new destinations.
“They’re going to help us develop the markets,” said Christine Valls, American’s director of sales for Florida and the Caribbean.
Ketty Gilvey, a sales representative for Atlantis Travel Services in Miami, was one of 15 travel agents who flew to Cienfuegos on American’s Sept. 7 inaugural flight. She said she found the people of Cienfuegos warm, the nearby colonial city of Trinidad beautiful and enjoyed strolling along Cienfuegos’ Malecón.
“We’ve gotten quite a few inquiries about Cuba,” she said. “I am recommending it; people want to see new destinations and this is a destination where many people never dreamed they would be able to visit.”
But like all new markets, she said it will take time to develop.
Atlantis, she said, is in the process of putting together some Cuban packages. “But I think that the biggest challenge will be getting hotel rooms,” said Gilvey. With the recent surge in tourism, hotels are often booked many months in advance.
Olga Ramudo, president and chief executive of Express Travel, said she isn’t personally sold on travel to Cuba and doesn’t promote it, but will sell trips to the island on a request basis. Ramudo left Cuba in 1959 and hadn’t returned until she took part in the Cienfuegos familiarization tour.
Ramudo said she had three reasons for going: to show her support for American Airlines, “so people can see what communism can do to a beautiful country,” and because she was interested in helping the Cuban people directly, especially Cuban cuentapropistas who are self-employed.
Jonathan Bedard, of Massachusetts-based Cubatodo.com, also was on the Cienfuegos trip. The online company, he said, is offering a 7-night discount package to Havana that includes hotel and airfare from Miami for $999. “It’s selling like hotcakes,” he said. The company also offers Cuba cruise packages and higher priced options that include stays at the Saratoga and Parque Central hotels in Havana, but warns that travelers need to book early because all hotel options may not be available.
Valls, who also is chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Cuba Committee, said another way to get more people on AA flights is to increase the business ties between the United States and Cuba and to encourage Cuba’s budding private sector.
“It might not be real business today but Cuba’s cuentapropistas have tremendous potential,” she said. “If we develop business between our two countries, then passengers will get aboard our flights.”
Many other chambers of commerce around the country have taken business delegations to Cuba, and Valls said the Greater Miami Chamber is working on such a plan too. “The goal is to do something in 2017,” she said.
American also hopes to fill more seats to Cuba by using its international network to bring in passengers from Europe, Asia and Australia, said Fernández. “The U.S. opening to Cuba has stirred up a lot of global interest in Cuba,” he said.
For American, Cuba is a long-term play.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on developing new markets and we expect to do the same here,” Valls said during a cocktail party American hosted in Cienfuegos to commemorate its first flight. “We’re really excited about this.”
“This is really a big investment in the future for them. I think they fully expect to lose money during the initial phase,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, one of the pioneers in the Cuban charter business. Marazul plans to phase out its regular charter business at the end of November and has been emphasizing tours and other aspects of specialized travel to Cuba since the major airlines began scheduled service to Cuba.
Cuba Travel Services is another charter company that is moving out of that business to other Cuban travel services. Michael Zuccato, general manager of CTS, predicts that as more commercial airlines start their regularly scheduled Cuban routes, adjustments will have to be made. “I think there could be a lot of empty seats, a lot of competition on all the routes.’
To fill its planes, AA knows it will have to not only reach out to new passengers who may have never visited Cuba before but also cater to traditional charter passengers — the Cuban-American community.
“The key thing is providing greater access to families and also to other people so they can experience some of the beautiful opportunities Cuba has to offer,” said Fernández. “This cultural exchange doesn’t need to involve politics.”
Winning over those Cuban-American customers, especially older ones, could be challenging for American as well for the other major airlines with designs on Cuba.
Bill Hauf, who operates Island Travel & Tours, a charter company, says his passengers aren’t looking for the ease of booking online. They pay in cash, like to come into the office and schmooze with employees, want to travel on flights that leave at the crack of down so they get a full first-day in Cuba, travel with lots of checked baggage and generally plan their trips well in advance.
Although some charter companies have dropped out of the business with the advent of scheduled flights, Hauf plans to continue. “We’ve done a better job of serving our customers,” he said.
“In order to put people in the seats, the airlines will have to reach out to a different class of passengers,” said Zuccato whose company is helping American Airlines’ passengers with their Cuban visa requirements. “With these new flights, you could have passengers in Nebraska booking tickets to Cuba, and the Nebraska ticket agent is not going to know anything about travel to Cuba,” he said.