Politics & Government

Why isn’t Havana among Cuban cities U.S. airlines can now serve?

Galo Beltran, Cuba country manager for American Airlines, tested a handheld baggage scanner at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport on Thursday. Friday, the U.S. government authorized six U.S. airlines to serve nine Cuban cities, but Havana, with major infrastructure woes, was not among them.
Galo Beltran, Cuba country manager for American Airlines, tested a handheld baggage scanner at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport on Thursday. Friday, the U.S. government authorized six U.S. airlines to serve nine Cuban cities, but Havana, with major infrastructure woes, was not among them. AP

The United States announced Friday that six U.S. airlines have received permission to provide air service to Cuba beginning in the fall – another step that is likely to vastly increase the number of Americans traveling to the island, challenging its tourism infrastructure.

But the government did not approve any service from the United States to Havana, the island nation’s capital. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said on a Department of Transportation blog that he’s working with U.S. airlines on proposals for Havana service, but that those routes will be announced at a later date.

Experts suggested that Havana was left off the first list of authorized Cuban destinations because of the deplorable conditions at the capital’s Jose Martí Airport. Passengers often spend hours waiting to check in for their flights, and travelers who use the airport say it couldn’t handle a bigger flow of passengers without a major facelift.

“Right now it’s busting at the seams,” said Alana Tummino, the head of the Cuba Working Group at the business-oriented Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

We look forward to giving our customers direct access to Cuba and eagerly await the Department’s decision on flights to Havana.

Steve Johnson, American Airlines

Still, Havana is the crown jewel of Cuban destinations, as American Airlines made clear in its statement welcoming the government action.

“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,” Steve Johnson, American’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, said in the statement. “We look forward to giving our customers direct access to Cuba and eagerly await the Department’s decision on flights to Havana.”

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker talks about the carrier's plans to fly to Cuba, pending government approval. (Video courtesy of American Airlines) March 2, 2016.

In addition to American, the airlines authorized to fly directly to Cuba are Frontier, JetBlue, Silver, Southwest and Sun Country. They were authorized to fly from five U.S. cities – Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia – to nine Cuban destinations: Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba.

American Airlines will fly out of Miami, while Jet Blue, Southwest and Silver Airways will fly from Fort Lauderdale.

The current authorization anticipates that in total, U.S. airlines will fly 155 times weekly to the island, the Department of Transportation said. Slots are available for as many as 90 flights daily, but U.S. airlines did not apply for all the routes available.

Friday’s announcement is the latest move by the Obama administration to increase travel to the communist nation since Dec. 17, 2014, when Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced that they would take steps to normalize relations.

In the past 18 months, the United States has removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, reestablished diplomatic relations and opened an embassy in Havana.

But the prospect of large numbers of American visitors arriving most likely beginning in September raises questions about Cuba’s ability to handle the expected influx.

More than 3.5 million people visited Cuba last year, but the island has only 63,000 hotel rooms, and foreign visitors already face difficulties finding accommodations. It’s for that reason that Airbnb has exploded in Cuba – the fastest-growing market for the online home-rental service.

The additional air service also doesn’t eliminate many requirements that American visitors must meet to travel to Cuba.

U.S. citizens still must comply with U.S. restrictions on Cuban visits, which are limited 12 approved travel categories outlined by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

It shows that we’re taking a step forward, But it also points to point that we have some work to do in Congress.

Alana Tummino, Americas Society

U.S. travelers also need a Cuban visa and are required to purchase a non-U.S. medical insurance policy. The Cuban Embassy sells such short-term policies.

Tummino of the Americas Society said the approval of the new flights should increase pressure on Congress to lift the travel ban altogether.

“The fact that we haven’t been able to have commercial airline travel to the island for decades is a big deal,” Tummino said. “And it’s a big deal that these restrictions are now being lifted. It shows that we’re taking a step forward. But it also points out that we have some work to do in Congress to pass legislation to lift the travel ban.”

Different airlines will fly to different cities. American Airlines, which has a hub at the Miami International Airport, will fly to five cities starting in September. The airline will offer two flights daily between Miami and Holguin, Santa Clara and Varadero, and one daily flight between Miami and Camaguey and Cienfuegos.

JetBlue will fly to Santa Clara, Camagüey and Holguín from Fort Lauderdale. Robin Hayes, president and chief executive officer of JetBlue, described the three cities as part of the “authentic island,” where customers can experience Colonial architecture, parks and plazas.

“Today’s news is historic on many fronts, especially for the families who, for the first time in generations, will have affordable award-winning air travel to visit their loved ones,” Hayes said in a statement.

The routes offered by other airlines were listed in a fact sheet distributed by the Department of Transportation.

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