NEW YORK / AP
US airlines are looking to serve Cuba primarily from their large hub cities, with Havana being the most popular destination.
At least eight carriers submitted applications to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) outlining what routes they would like to fly. The government will spend the next few months reviewing the requests and is expected to award the contested Havana routes this summer. Flights to smaller cities — if uncontested and lacking any contentious issues — could be approved much sooner.
Once routes are awarded, airlines will still need time to develop schedules and actually sell seats on the flights.
And while the US government will set the routes, airlines will also need to apply to Cuba’s civil aviation authority for a permit to operate in the country.
All flights operating between the two countries today are charters, but an agreement signed between the two nations last month allows for up to 110 additional flights — more than five times the current charter operations.
Only 20 of those flights can go to Havana, in addition to the current 10 to 15 charter flights a day. The rest of the flights would fly to other Cuban cities.
US tourists still won’t legally be allowed to visit Cuba but the start of commercial flights will make it much easier for those who fall into one of the authorized travel categories. Charter flights are expensive, frequently chaotic and lack many of the traditional supports of commercial aviation such as online booking and 24-hour customer service.
Most of the planes proposed by US airlines would carry about 160 passengers.
Nearly 160,000 US leisure travellers flew to Cuba last year, along with hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans visiting family. Tourism is still barred, but the number of legal reasons to go to Cuba — from organising professional meetings to distributing information to Cubans — has grown so large and is so loosely enforced that the distinction from tourism has blurred significantly.
American Airlines was the most-aggressive carrier in its approach, requesting more than half the possible slots to Havana plus service to five other, smaller Cuban cities. The airline has a large hub in Miami, home to the largest Cuban-American population.
In American’s filing with the DOT, CEO Doug Parker wrote that his airline has been “the undisputed leader” in charter service, having done so since 1991.
The airline notes in its application that last year alone, it operated 1,084 Cuba charters while JetBlue Airways had 221 and Delta Air Lines had four.
Following Wednesday’s route application deadline, airlines and the public have a chance to comment on the flights sought. That process will conclude by March 21.