DOT awards routes from U.S. to Havana

Airport workers receive JetBlue flight 387 on the airport tarmac in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was the first commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba in more than a half century.
Airport workers receive JetBlue flight 387 on the airport tarmac in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was the first commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba in more than a half century. AP

On the day the first scheduled flight to Cuba in more than half a century took off, the U.S. Department of Transportation gave final approval to eight U.S. airlines to begin service on coveted routes to Havana.

There were 20 daily frequencies to Havana up for grabs, and 12 U.S. passenger airlines and one cargo airline had applied for the flights.

The big winners were American Airlines, which will be able to fly four times daily from Miami and once daily from Charlotte, and JetBlue Airways, which has been authorized to fly to the Cuban capital from Fort Lauderdale, New York’s JFK and Orlando.

JetBlue will be able to serve the Havana route twice daily from Fort Lauderdale — except Saturday when it is permitted only one flight, and once daily from both JFK and Orlando.

Other airlines that received Havana routes were Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines. Departure cities also include Los Angeles, Atlanta, Tampa, Newark and Houston.

In addition to American and JetBlue, four other airlines will serve South Florida. Delta and Frontier were given daily flights from Miami, and Southwest and Spirit were authorized to fly twice daily to Havana from Fort Lauderdale.

The airlines are expected to begin scheduled service to Havana as early as this fall. DOT requires that carriers begin their service within 90 days of its final order, which was Wednesday.

Despite strenuous objections from some airlines that were left out in the cold on the Havana routes or that wanted more frequencies or different gateway cities, DOT allowed preliminary approvals that it issued in July to stand.

“Today’s actions are the result of months of work by airlines, cities, the U.S. government, and many others toward delivering on President Obama’s promise to reengage with Cuba,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in Cuba Wednesday after arriving on JetBlue’s inaugural Fort Lauderdale-Santa Clara flight.

“Transportation has a unique role in this historic initiative and we look forward to the benefits these new services will provide to those eligible for Cuba travel,” Foxx said.

In addition to the Havana routes, DOT has already given six airlines, including JetBlue and American, authority for up to 90 daily flights to Cuban cities outside Havana.

Airlines pretty much got the routes they asked for outside Havana, but the carriers applied for far more than the 20 Havana frequencies that DOT is allowing, and the gloves came off as they tried to make their own cases and disparage the requests of their rivals.

Silver Airways, which will begin service to Santa Clara on Thursday and did not get any Havana routes, contended in a filing with DOT that the applications of several of its rivals were “based on excessive, unrealistic demand expectations with capacity levels that could never be sustained.”

It said awarding “daily routes to Havana from non-Florida gateways with relatively small populations of Cuban-Americans should be avoided.”

Eastern Air Lines, which did not receive any Cuba routes, took issue with carriers awarded multiple daily flights to Cuba, saying in a DOT filing that some of the applicants “espouse a level of greed or monopolistic thinking that is awkward as the administration urges Cuba to adopt capitalist, free-market ways.” It said that American’s proposal in particular “is antithetical to American values of open competition and market forces on which our economy is built.”

On Wednesday, American said with the final DOT approval on its proposed Havana routes, it was poised to remain the leading airline between the United States and Cuba. It plans 91 weekly flights to Cuba, more than any other carrier.

American, which has long leased its planes for charter flights to Cuba, plans its first scheduled flights to Cienfuegos and Holguín next Wednesday.