Cuba approves first commercial flights from Miami and Fort Lauderdale

American Airlines employees gather in March 2016 when the airline submitted its application to the U.S. Department of Transportation for commercial service to Cuba.
American Airlines employees gather in March 2016 when the airline submitted its application to the U.S. Department of Transportation for commercial service to Cuba. American

American Airlines and JetBlue have received final approval from the Cuban government to begin commercial airline service to several airports on the island, clearing the last hurdle for inaugural flights from Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

JetBlue, with a flight scheduled to Santa Clara from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Aug. 31, gets the distinction as the first regularly scheduled flight to Cuba in more than 50 years, and American Airlines will follow up the next week with commercial airline service from Miami International Airport beginning Sept. 7.

At this point, JetBlue has only received the green light for its flights to Santa Clara, but it also hopes to begin service to Holguín and Camagüey in November.

American, which plans twice-daily flights to Holguín, Santa Clara and Varadero and daily fights to Camagüey and Cienfuegos, has received Cuban government approval to land and take off from all five Cuban airports. In all, it will be offering 56 weekly flights to Cuba.

American, JetBlue and other airlines have applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation to fly 20 daily routes to Havana, but so far DOT has only granted preliminary approval for the routes. Final DOT approval is expected later this year, and then Cuba’s Civil Aviation Institute must also give its OK.

Frontier, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines also have won DOT approval for non-Havana routes.

We’ve been hard at work to make sure we’re Cuba-ready

Martha Pantin, American Airlines spokeswoman

“We’ve been hard at work to make sure we’re Cuba-ready,” American spokeswoman Martha Pantin said Thursday — the day American received the paperwork on its flight approvals.

That includes shipping computers, signage and other equipment to all five Cuban airports American will serve to handle check-ins and to train Cuban employees who will be processing passengers. Pantin said that since early August, American has been training the Cubans on its check-in procedures and systems at training facilities set up at the five airports.

JetBlue also has begun training personnel at the airport in Santa Clara.

Although charter flights have carried passengers to and from Cuba for decades — many times on aircraft leased from JetBlue, American and other airlines — the new era of commercial air service will bring somewhat different procedures for passengers.

The first and perhaps biggest change will be in baggage policies. Passengers on Cuba charters have grown used to liberal baggage policies, and passengers with luggage carts piled high with televisions, household goods and shrink-wrapped packages are a common sight at airports where the charters embark.

But with scheduled service, Pantin said, there will be restrictions on overweight, oversize and excess baggage. In general, passengers will be permitted no more than 100 pounds of baggage and no boxes or oversized baggage will be permitted.

Travelers on American flights will be allowed two bags of no more than 62 linear inches and 50 pounds each, she said. Except for passengers who have elite status or are traveling first class, fees will be $25 for the first checked bag and $40 for the second.

For its Cuba flights, JetBlue plans to allow one piece of checked baggage of up to 50 pounds for free. Passengers will be able to check baggage of up to 70 pounds but will have to pay an overweight fee. Luggage of up to 64 linear inches will be allowed. For baggage more than 64 inches and up to 84 linear inches, an overweight fee will be charged, said Philip Stewart, JetBlue’s manager of corporate communications.

Unlike most scheduled flights, passengers can’t simply choose a Cuban city and book a flight. They must fall into 12 categories of travel allowed by the U.S. government. When booking, passengers must complete an affidavit certifying they are going to Cuba for one of the approved categories of travel.

American is working with Cuba Travel Services, which also offers charter service to Cuba, to help passengers with visas to Cuba.

American is working with Cuba Travel Services, which also offers charter service to Cuba, to help passengers with visas to Cuba. Pantin said CTS will be in touch with passengers about visa requirements 30 days before their departure dates, but those who require special visas such as journalists and business travelers still must be in touch with the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., to obtain the correct documentation.

For those who need tourist visas — generally those taking people-to-people trips to Cuba — JetBlue will sell them at cost to passengers at gateway airports on the day of travel. Stewart said JetBlue is still working out details with the Cuban government on the cost of those visas.

On charter flights, the cost of health insurance while in Cuba is generally rolled into ticket prices. Stewart said JetBlue would continue that practice and the included health coverage on JetBlue flights would be good for 30 days.

Our whole thing is demystifying travel to Cuba

Philip Stewart, JetBlue spokesman

“Our whole thing is demystifying travel to Cuba. We’re trying to make this as streamlined as possible,” Stewart said.

As part of that, JetBlue is offering starting fares to the three Cuban cities it will initially serve for $99 one-way.

American Airlines plans to set up special booths at the MIA check-in area where passengers can purchase Cuban health insurance and tourist visas and have their documents checked. If everything is in order, the passengers will get a Cuba-ready stamp allowing them to complete the check-in process, Pantin said. Mobile boarding passes won’t be available for the Cuba flights.

Non-Cuba residents, except for those from countries with reciprocal health insurance agreements with Cuba, will be required to purchase health insurance, Pantin said.

Passengers taking charter flights to Cuba are usually advised to be at the airport four hours in advance. JetBlue has shaved an hour off that and is recommending that passengers headed to Cuba be at the airport three hours in advance. American also “strongly suggests” passengers arrive at the airport three hours ahead of time.

Mimi Whitefield: @HeraldMimi on Twitter