US-Cuba commercial flights on the horizon

By Mimi Whitefield | Miami Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 24, 2016

MIAMI — American Airlines’ Howard Kass is hopeful that the airline will be flying regularly scheduled service between the United States and Cuba within the first half of this year and says Miami will play a big role in resumption of commercial flights to the island.

U.S. and Cuban officials reached a preliminary agreement Dec. 16 to resume scheduled flights between the two countries for the first time in more than five decades as well as to continue the charter flights that have long served as the only bridge between the United States and Cuba.

Now the documents are being translated and the translations verified — a process that’s expected to take a few more weeks. When the agreement is released, the U.S. Department of Transportation will issue a notice instructing U.S. air carriers how to submit applications for Cuban routes.

The government is expected to approve up to 20 flights a day to Havana and 10 daily for nine other Cuban cities with international airports.

For competitive reasons, the airlines aren’t being too forthcoming about the routes they want to serve. But Kass, American’s vice president of regulatory affairs, said, “I would suspect that Havana would be oversubscribed.”

If that’s the case, there may be a few rounds of back and forth with DOT as airlines make their case why they should be granted specific routes and flight frequencies. DOT will ultimately make the decision, and it’s possible that if there’s not much competition among U.S. carriers for secondary Cuban markets, approval for those destinations might come sooner than for Havana.

Josefina Vidal, who heads the Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry’s U.S. division, told the Cuban News Agency, or ACN, that once a final agreement is signed, then U.S. airlines must sign contracts with Cubana de Aviacion, Cuba’s national carrier, and the Civil Aeronautics Institute. “It’s a complex task, very technical, and the United States must complete various steps, bidding (on routes), because there are many airlines and all have equal rights in terms of market share,” she said.

“We still believe we’ll be flying scheduled service to Cuba within the first half of 2016,” said Kass. “We’re optimistic that DOT will move swiftly to permit U.S. carriers to offer scheduled service.”

American isn’t the only airline interested in Cuba service. JetBlue, United Airlines, Southwest and Delta have all indicated they want to throw their hats into the ring.

“The interest is still standing. We’re just waiting for the government,” said Sarah Lora, Delta’s spokeswoman for Latin America and the Caribbean.

She declined to say which routes Delta is interested in but said she expects the airline’s Atlanta hub to be in its plans.


©2016 Miami Herald

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