U.S. clears 6 airlines for takeoff to Cuba, but flights won’t start right away

Cheering American Airlines employees at Miami International Airport greet the news Friday that DOT approved eight daily scheduled AA flights between MIA and five Cuban cities.
Cheering American Airlines employees at Miami International Airport greet the news Friday that DOT approved eight daily scheduled AA flights between MIA and five Cuban cities.

The U.S. Department of Commerce gave the green light Friday to six U.S. airlines to begin scheduled service to Cuba from five American cities, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as early as this fall.

Allowing commercial service between the two countries for the first time in more than half a century is part of the Obama administration’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba. The United States and Cuba have agreed in principle to the resumption of scheduled flights, but the airlines still must seek Cuban permission for the slots.

The airlines — American, Frontier, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines — received approvals to travel to nine Cuban cities with international airports.

But the big prizes — routes to the capital Havana — have yet to be awarded. At stake are up to 20 daily round-trip flights between the United States and Havana. DOT said it expects to reach a final decision on Havana routes this summer. U.S. air carriers have requested more than 300 weekly flights to Havana, far exceeding the 140 flights that will be allowed.

The DOT approvals open up new Cuban cities to the U.S. market and include service to at least three resort areas in Cuba: Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo and Matanzas, which serves Varadero Beach. The other Cuban cities that DOT has authorized for commercial service from the United States include: Camagüey, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.

But U.S. travelers are not supposed to take beach vacations in Cuba and still must fall within the 12 categories the U.S. government allows for travel to the island. The categories range from family visits and educational and humanitarian trips to people-to-people travel designed to foster more engagement with the Cuban people.

“Last year, President [Barack] Obama announced that it was time to ‘begin a new journey’ with the Cuban people,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Today, we are delivering on his promise by re-launching scheduled air service to Cuba after more than half a century.”

Miami and Fort Lauderdale will figure heavily in the new commercial service to Cuba. The other U.S. cities that have been awarded Cuba routes at this point are Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

American Airlines has been approved for eight daily flights from Miami International Airport to Cuba. It has been authorized for twice-a-day service, using 160-seat planes, from MIA to both Santa Clara and Holguín, two flights daily to Matanzas using a 144-seat aircraft, and daily service to Camagüey and Cienfuegos.

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The airline hopes to begin service on all these routes by early September and plans to begin selling tickets by the end of June. American hasn’t revealed ticket prices but said they will be competitive.

“The resumption of scheduled air service to Cuba is a historic achievement and we commend Secretary Foxx and his team for making it a reality,” said Steve Johnson, American’s executive vice president of corporate affairs. “We look forward to giving our customers direct access to Cuba and eagerly await the department’s decision on flights to Havana.”

American has asked for 10 daily flights from Miami to Havana as well as service to Havana from Charlotte, Dallas, Fort Worth, Chicago and Los Angeles.

JetBlue, Silver Airways and Southwest Airways all have been authorized to fly from Fort Lauderdale to various Cuban cities.

JetBlue was approved for daily flights, using 162-seat aircraft, from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Camagüey, Holguín and Santa Clara, and Southwest has been awarded twice daily service to Matanzas and one flight a day to Santa Clara. The airline is authorized to use 143-seat planes.

Silver Airways has been granted various frequencies to all nine Cuban cities, and it will be using 34-seat planes.

Frontier Airlines has been authorized for service from Chicago and Philadelphia, and Sun Country has been given authority for weekly flights from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Santa Clara and Matanzas.

All the airlines, with the exception of Eastern Airlines, got the non-Havana routes they applied for. DOT said Eastern has not completed the licensing procedures needed to offer scheduled passenger services and it deferred action on its request.

If the airlines get the go-ahead from the Cuban government, DOT said most of the carriers plan to begin their new service to Cuba this fall and winter. The airlines must begin their new service within 90 days of the dates they proposed in their applications, said DOT.

Until Havana route authority is granted, charter services will continue to handle flights to the Cuban capital as they have for decades. But if they can’t compete on price with the new scheduled service to the other Cuban cities, the Cuba charter companies’ days might be numbered.

“The question is whether the scheduled carriers will be offering cheaper prices than the charters. The bottom line will be cost,” said Vivian Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers, a Miami company that sells Cuba travel services.

“Obviously the overhead for the major carriers will be less,” said Mannerud, who used to operate a Cuba charter company that was the first to lease planes from major U.S. carriers, including JetBlue and American, for charter service to Cuba.

“This is where the rubber meets the runway in the process of normalizing relations,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas. “It’s good for American travelers, good for U.S. airlines, good for increasing contact and economic opportunity for the Cuban people, and good for diplomats from both countries who took courageous steps leading to this day.”

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