One year on since President Obama proposed normalising relations between the United States and Cuba and a revised bilateral air service agreement is in the pipeline that will permit the introduction of the first regular scheduled flights between the two countries in more than half a century.
A historic deal has been reached this week after three days of talks in Washington that opens the way for US airlines to negotiate with Cuba's government to operate up to 20 routes a day to Havana and ten too each of Cuba's other nine major airports, according to State Department officials. These will be in addition to the current limited charter programmes that have been serving the countries while hefty sanctions have been in place.
US travel to Cuba has risen by more than 50 per cent this year and there has been an even greater rise in travel from other countries, since President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro announced a historic detente this time last year.
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry said the new agreement will facilitate growth in authorised travel between the countries. “In the past, US-Cuba dialogue was narrow, relatively sterile, and rare. Over the past year, it has been comprehensive, business like, and routine,” he said.
As the flags went up in July in Washington and the following month in Havana as ceremonies were held to mark the re-opening of embassies after a period of 54 years, so did our hopes for a new era in which policies and attitudes will be driven not by past animosities but by mutual interests.
“We have further empowered a Cuban private sector that now employs at least one in four Cuban workers,” added Kerry. “There has been a dramatic change in policy, but it represents no change in our aspiration for Cuban citizens – that they be given a chance to live in a peaceful, prosperous, open, and democratic society.”
While US law continues to prohibit travel to Cuba for tourist activities, a stronger civil aviation relationship will facilitate growth in authorised travel between the two countries - a critical component of President Obama’s policy toward Cuba
The new bilateral aviation arrangement will continue to allow charter operations and establish a framework for scheduled air service, which will facilitate an increase in authorized travel, enhance traveller choices, and promote people-to-people links between the two countries, according to US State Department.
US Officials suggest to Routesonline that it may still be a slow process to the final delivery of multiple daily scheduled frequencies into Cuba from the US so as to not overwhelm the nation’s limited tourism infrastructure and market demand would ultimately determine whether charter flights continue or are replaced by commercial aviation.
A number of US carriers have already revealed their intent to introduce scheduled flights to Cuba with American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines all open to working with the US Department of Transportation to secure rights to fly to Cuba.
American Airlines said it expects to submit a US-Cuba service proposal to the US Department of Transportation and hopes for timely approval of its proposal to enable it to introduce scheduled service as soon as possible in 2016.
"This announcement is great news for our customers as it brings us one step closer to connecting the U.S. and Cuba with scheduled air service," said Doug Parker, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, American Airlines. "We look forward to establishing scheduled service to Cuba in 2016, from Miami and other American hubs.”
“In the past, US-Cuba dialogue was narrow, relatively sterile, and rare. Over the past year, it has been comprehensive, business like, and routine.”John Kerry
US Secretary of State
The US major has been the leader in the US to Cuba market for nearly 25 years having first introduced charter service to Cuba in 1991 with flights from Miami, Tampa and Los Angeles to five Cuban destinations: Camaguey, Cienfuegos, Havana, Holguin and Santa Clara.
This year, it will operate approximately 1,200 charter flights to Cuba, more than any other US carrier and a nine per cent increase from 2014. Earlier this month it launched a new charter service between Los Angeles and Havana, the only non-stop service between the West Coast of the US and Cuba.
Meanwhile, fellow US majors, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines both said they “look forward” to resuming flights to Cuba from their own hubs. The latter has a history of commercial service in Cuba beginning in May 1953, when it inherited passenger service to Havana from its merger with Chicago and Southern Air Lines.
JetBlue said it would submit its application for new routes to the US Department of Transportation once the airline has fully reviewed terms of the agreement and has clarity on the process and timing of assigning frequencies to US airlines.
Over the last several years, JetBlue has become a leader in the Caribbean with our position as the largest airline in markets like Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic and an expanding presence across the region.
“Interest in Cuba has reached levels not seen for a generation," said Scott Laurence, senior vice president airline planning, JetBlue. “We will review the terms of the agreement to understand how JetBlue can expand from charter service to regularly scheduled service. Our years of experience in Cuba and unmatched customer experience positions JetBlue as the carrier of choice for travel to Cuba."
JetBlue first began operating charters to Cuba in 2011 and now flies to Havana and Santa Clara from New York, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, and Tampa. JetBlue plans to continue operating charter flights with its partners as the process of assigning frequencies for scheduled service flights proceeds.
Depending on the number of flight frequencies available to the airline, JetBlue is eager to offer affordable service from numerous US cities to multiple destinations in Cuba. “We hope the next dot on our Caribbean route map will be Havana, and possibly even other destinations in Cuba," added Laurence, describing Cuba as a “perfect addition” to the JetBlue network.