Cuba flights getting scarcer, but MIA still the premier gateway to get there

An American Airlines jet is prepared for the inauguration of AA’s regularly scheduled service from Miami to Cienfuegos on Sept. 7, 2016. American says its last flight to Cienfuegos will be Jan. 8, 2018.
An American Airlines jet is prepared for the inauguration of AA’s regularly scheduled service from Miami to Cienfuegos on Sept. 7, 2016. American says its last flight to Cienfuegos will be Jan. 8, 2018.

It’s getting harder to find flights to Cuba with U.S. airlines dropping out of the market as demand softens, but Miami International Airport is holding its own as the main gateway for travel to the island.

Despite the initial excitement that a new era in U.S.-Cuba travel was dawning when the first regularly scheduled commercial flights in 55 years began in August 2016, demand has proved weaker than expected — especially to provincial markets.

Travel through Miami International Airport, though, remains ahead of last year. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 5,021 Cuba-bound flights carrying 547,188 passengers left MIA, compared to 4,864 flights carrying 466,497 passengers during the first 10 months of 2016. Two-way traffic through October topped 1.13 million.

Through September, when Hurricane Irma walloped Cuba and forced airport closures, Cuba traffic was still up 20 percent. A dip followed in October after the State Department issued a Sept. 29 travel warning for Cuba in the wake of mysterious acoustic incidents affecting the health of 24 American diplomats who were stationed in Havana.

Not all airlines are finding Cuba flights rewarding.

Alaska Airlines is the latest air carrier to drop service to Cuba. Its last daily flight between Los Angeles and Havana will be Jan. 22, a little over a year after it inaugurated the route.

“Travel is about making connections, and we were honored to have played a role in helping people make personal connections by traveling between the U.S. and Cuba,” said Andrew Harrison, chief commercial officer for the airline. “We continually evaluate every route we fly to ensure we have the right number of seats to match the number of people who want to go there.”

The aircraft used on the Cuba route will be deployed to a higher-demand market. Alaska said those who have booked flights after Jan. 22 will be booked on flights on other airlines at no additional cost or offered refunds.

Alaska was the first airline to readjust its schedule after new Trump administration rules on Cuba travel went into effect on Nov. 9. Among the changes: eliminating individual people-to-people travel to Cuba. Alaska said about 80 percent of its travelers to Cuba flew under this category, which is designed to promote meaningful exchanges between the American and Cuban people.

Americans can still make people-to-people visits to Cuba, but they must travel in groups with a representative of the organizing group. There are 12 categories of travel, including family and humanitarian visits, under which Americans may legally travel to the island.

Sun Country Airlines, which received authorization to fly from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Matanzas (Varadero) and Santa Clara in 2016, announced recently it no longer plans to use those slots. It never began the service to Cuba.

American Airlines also is dropping its daily flight from Miami to Cienfuegos on Jan. 8. Cienfuegos, on Cuba’s southern coast, was the first Cuban city that American flew into when it inaugurated regularly scheduled commercial service to Cuba on Sept. 7, 2016.

The airline will continue 63 weekly flights to five other Cuban cities — Holguín, Camagüey, Santa Clara, Varadero and Havana.

Several airlines that a little over a year ago were clamoring to be awarded Cuba routes also have dropped out — and even some that continue to serve the Cuban market have reduced frequencies or are using small aircraft.

Ultra low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines dropped its flights to Havana from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in June, saying the costs of serving Havana outweighed the demand.

Southwest Airlines stopped flying to Varadero and Santa Clara from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in September but has continued to fly its twice-daily Fort Lauderdale-Havana route and its Tampa-Havana route.

Silver Airways, which had authority to serve nine Cuban destinations in small planes, left the market in April, and Frontier Airlines dropped its Miami-to-Havana route on June 4.

But other airlines continue to see opportunity in Cuba and have filed applications with the U.S. Department of Transportation for the four Miami-Havana slots that are now available because of the departing airlines. Some airlines are also asking for authority to fly from additional U.S. gateways or increase the frequency of their flights.

JetBlue, for example, wants six additional weekly flights from Fort Lauderdale to Havana and also wants to provide non-stop service between Boston and Havana on Saturdays. It already flies daily non-stop service from New York to Havana, daily non-stop service from Orlando to Havana and operates 13 weekly flights from Fort Lauderdale to Havana.

Southwest also is asking for a third daily round-trip between Fort Lauderdale and Havana.

In applying for additional frequencies, American says that its Miami-Havana service “creates the greatest public benefit of all U.S.-Havana services.” The demand is “in Miami-Dade County and specifically American’s service out of MIA,” American said in its DOT filing.

It argues that competitors JetBlue and Southwest, which are seeking additional service out of Fort Lauderdale, “cannot escape the reality that the Miami-Dade Cuban-American community favors American’s MIA-HAV service” and the Miami route has “proven much more successful.” The airline says that from December 2016 to July 2017, 36 percent of all U.S.-Havana passengers traveled through Miami compared to 27 percent through Fort Lauderdale.

American is asking for 10 additional weekly flights from Miami to Havana.

Delta is asking for daily Miami-Havana service and United and Mesa are proposing six flights weekly from Houston to Havana, using aircraft from either airline to serve the route.

But because the fourth Miami-Havana route only recently opened up when Alaska Air dropped its service, DOT is allowing airlines to file new submissions. The deadline is Nov. 28.