Civil aviation accord with Cuba to be signed Tuesday, setting off stampede for routes

American Airlines Chief Pilot Kevin Mase holds a Cuban flag on Dec. 16, 2015, the day the United States and Cuba reached an agreement to restore regularly scheduled flights between the two countries.
American Airlines Chief Pilot Kevin Mase holds a Cuban flag on Dec. 16, 2015, the day the United States and Cuba reached an agreement to restore regularly scheduled flights between the two countries. American Airlines

The United States and Cuba will sign a civil aviation agreement in Havana on Tuesday, opening the door for U.S. airlines to begin offering scheduled service between the two countries for the first time since the early 1960s.

Beginning Tuesday, commercial passenger and cargo airlines will have a 15-day window to submit applications to serve Havana and nine other Cuban cities with international airports. Charter flights, which have been the only way to fly to Cuba for decades, will continue.

Decisions on which airlines and which U.S. cities will have commercial service to Cuba are expected to be made by this summer, and the first scheduled flights could begin by next fall, Brandon Belford, deputy assistant for aviation and international affairs at the Department of Transportation, said Friday.

The agreement, which was reached in December, allows a maximum of 20 daily flights to Havana and 10 daily flights to each of the other nine cities for a total of 110 daily flights.

Officials said it’s possible that more airlines might want to fly to Havana than slots are available, while some of the other airports may be under-subscribed. If non-Havana markets are not as hotly contested, “we will likely be in a position to make those determinations and award those frequencies to U.S. carriers in a shorter time line,” Belford said.

How many flights will ultimately serve Cuba “depends on market demand,” said Thomas Engle, deputy assistant secretary of state for transportation affairs. Cuba also has international airports in Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Varadero, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.

American travelers will still be prohibited from traveling to Cuba for tourism, but travel in 12 authorized categories, such as educational trips and people-to-people tours, is permitted.

American Airlines, which already leases more of its aircraft for Cuban charters than any other U.S. airline, is eager to begin service to Cuba.

“We look forward to establishing scheduled service to Cuba in 2016 from Miami and our other hubs,” said Martha Pantin, an American spokeswoman. “With some 25 years of experience and operations already established in Miami, that hub makes sense. We are exploring other options based on demand in each market.”

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 Cuba charters.

JetBlue, United Airlines, Southwest and Delta also have indicated they want to offer service to Cuba.

Although the civil aviation agreement is a reciprocal one, meaning Cuba could also provide scheduled service to the United States using its planes, Engle said, “We do not anticipate Cuban-owned aircraft serving the United States in the near future.”

One of the problems is that Cuban aircraft could be seized by U.S. plaintiffs who have won civil judgments in U.S. courts against the Cuban government that stem from claims that they or their family members have suffered abuses at the hands of the Cuban government. Cuba chose not to defend itself in the cases, and the plaintiffs won by default. But now the judgments total billions of dollars.

Engle called that “one of the very important practical obstacles in the way of Cuban-owned aircraft serving the U.S. anytime soon.” He said the topic was discussed in negotiations last year that led to the agreement and the U.S. government was “very clear” about the limitations of the executive branch to mitigate Cuban-owned assets being seized to satisfy such judgments.

The agreement, however, does allow Cuba’s state airline, Cubana de Aviación, to enter into code-sharing arrangements with U.S. airlines as well as aircraft leases with third-country airlines.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Charles H. Rivkin will lead the U.S. delegation to the Tuesday signing ceremony in Cuba.