U.S. airlines in race for commercial service to Cuba

Video: American Airlines wants to fly to Cuba

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker talks about the carrier's plans to fly to Cuba, pending government approval. "Miami-Dade County is heart and soul of the Cuban American community and no one else has made a greater commitment to Miami-Dade County
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American Airlines CEO Doug Parker talks about the carrier's plans to fly to Cuba, pending government approval. "Miami-Dade County is heart and soul of the Cuban American community and no one else has made a greater commitment to Miami-Dade County

The first round of competition for commercial routes between the United States and Cuba opened Wednesday with American Airlines making it clear it wants its Miami hub to play a major role in the future of civil aviation between the two countries.

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In an application American filed with the Department of Transportation, it requested a total of 18 daily flights from Miami International Airport to various Cuba cities: 10 daily flights to Havana, two daily flights to Santa Clara, Holguín and Varadero airports and flights once a day to Camagüey and Cienfuegos.

American also is proposing to serve Havana with daily flights from Charlotte and Dallas/Fort Worth and with weekly flights from Chicago and Los Angeles.

“In many ways American has been preparing for this day for decades.,” said Doug Parker, chairman and CEO of American Airlines. “Miami-Dade County is the heart and soul of the Cuban-American community and no airline has made a greater commitment to Miami-Dade than American. We’ve built a world-class gateway hub in Miami.”

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Airlines had until 5 p.m. Wednesday to submit their route applications to DOT and most pushed it right up to the final minutes. After a few more rounds of give and take between the airlines and DOT, the routes are expected to be awarded by late spring or early summer and the first commercial flights between the two countries in more than 50 years could begin by fall.

The United States and Cuba signed an accord on civil aviation on Feb. 16 in Havana. It also allows for reciprocal service by Cuban air carriers, but U.S. officials said they didn’t expect any Cuban-owned planes to be flying to the United States in the near future.

At stake are 20 daily flight frequencies to Havana, and 10 daily routes to nine other Cuban cities — Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Varadero, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba — for a total of 110 daily flights to Cuba. But the real battle is expected to be for the Havana routes.

Delta Airlines, for example, is asking for five daily flights — all to Havana. It is requesting two departures from MIA, and one each from Atlanta, New York’s JFK and Orlando.

JetBlue wants to make Fort Lauderdale its hub for Cuba travel. It has requested four daily routes to Havana, one flight daily to Camagüey, one daily to Holguín, and once a day service to Santa Clara — all from Fort Lauderdale.

Silver Airways, which offers a number of routes between Florida and the Bahamas, has applied for scheduled air service from five Florida cities: Key West, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and Fort Myers/Naples. It is proposing service from all those cities to Havana, as well as service to the nine other Cuban destinations from its South Florida hub in Fort Lauderdale.

“Silver Airways is making a substantial commitment to both the people of Florida and Cuba as we look forward to bridging the large Cuban-American populations in Florida to every destination possible in Cuba,” said Silver President and Chief Executive Sami Teittinen. “While many airlines will apply to serve the large, lucrative Havana routes, Silver is applying to provide convenient, direct service to all 10 Cuban destinations,”

Other airlines that have expressed interest in vying for Cuba routes include United Airlines, Southwest and ultra low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines.

If the routes to the other nine airports aren’t fully subscribed, it’s possible commercial service to those cities could begin before fall.

State Department officials said that how many daily flights will ultimately serve Cuba depends on market demand.

“This proceeding is not an ordinary route case, and the vision of achieving fully restored scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba cannot be fully realized overnight,” said AA’s Parker.

But in its application, American tried to make the case that it is the most qualified carrier for the Miami routes.

It currently is the leader in charter services between the United States and Cuba — leasing more American planes to charter companies serving Cuba than any other U.S. carrier. Over the past 25 years, American planes have flown more than 20,000 charters.

That experience, said Parker, means “American is ready on Day 1 to offer the benefits of a full schedule of reliable frequencies to Cuba.”

“We are really excited about this for Miami and for American Airlines,” said Howard Kass., AA’s vice president of regulatory affairs. “We hope DOT will realize how important Miami is to air traffic to Cuba.” He said he expected American could begin flying regularly scheduled flights within 90 days after DOT issues its final order on the routes.

American travelers who fly to Cuba on regularly scheduled flights will still have to fall within 12 classes of authorized travel. Vacation/leisure travel still isn’t allowed — although some of the Cuban destinations such as Cayo Coco and Cayo Largo are beach resorts.

“Because tourism cannot be considered, the foundation must be based on the current and expect demand for cultural, family and business travel,” said J. Scott Kirby, AA president, in his DOT testimony.

Locals and visitors in Miami's Little Havana share their opinions Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, on President Obama's planned visit to Cuba. The president and first lady will visit the island March 21-22.