What's keeping U.S. commercial airlines from flying directly to Havana?

Posted: 17-Jun-16 11:05

In a much-anticipated move, several U.S. commercial airlines just received permission to fly directly to Cuba later this year, but the capital city of Havana is not on the list of nine destinations. Experts say they suspect Havana's main airport is the reason why, though they remain optimistic direct flights to Havana will take off in the near future.

What's keeping U.S. commercial airlines from flying directly to Havana?

Nearly a year and a half after President Obama first announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba and travel restrictions began to ease, some U.S. commercial airlines finally have the authority to make direct flights to the country. Just days ago the U.S. government revealed that six American-based airlines will be able to take off on direct flights to nine Cuban destinations this autumn, though the list does not include the capital city of Havana.

The News Tribune, a Washington state-based newspaper, recently published an article suggesting a possible reason behind the decision. According to author Franco Ordonez, it likely has to do with the condition of Havana’s Jose Marti Airport. The speculation by some experts is that the airport’s aging infrastructure won’t be able to handle an expected influx of American travellers headed to Cuba once direct commercial flights take off.

That theory is echoed by Alana Tummino, the leader of the Cuba Working Group at Americas Society and Council of the Americas:

“Right now it’s busting at the seams.”

Ordonez writes some travellers to Havana have had to wait hours before checking in for a flight, a problem that could be exacerbated by the millions of people hoping to visit Cuba this year alone. Last year, he notes, more than 3.5 million travellers arrived, yet even more could start arriving starting in September, when it’s expected the direct U.S. commercial flights will begin.

For now, the six U.S. airlines authorized to make direct flights to Cuba later this year include American, JetBlue, Southwest, Silver, Sun Country and Frontier. Depending on which airline a passenger chooses, the flight will originate in Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Fort Lauderdale or Miami.

While Havana is not on the list of destinations just yet, Santiago de Cuba, Santa Clara, Manzanillo, Holguin, Cayo Largo, Camaguey, Mantanzas, Cayo Coco and Cienfuegos are. Still, many are optimistic the capital city will be on a future list. The author mentions a blog from U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx assuring that he’s helping U.S. airlines in their proposals for direct service to Havana and that those routes will likely be revealed later on.

As for now, the airlines are hopeful too. American Executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs Steve Johnson says:

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

As more flights are added, the article also makes note of the rapidly expanding service of Airbnb in Cuba, as the country only currently has 63,000 hotel rooms capable of providing lodging to visitors. In addition, U.S. visitors still need to fall within one of the 12 government approved travel categories, such as people-to-people cultural tours, in order to go to Cuba.

While having direct commercial airline service from the U.S. to Cuba is significant, some, like Tummino, say the announcement underscores the need for U.S. lawmakers to open up access between the two countries even more.

“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.”

American Airlines has said it will provide up to two daily flights to certain Cuban destination beginning this September. JetBlue, on the other hand, will fly to three Cuban cities chosen to represent an “authentic island” destination. All feature things like plazas, parks and Colonial architecture.

It’s expected that U.S.-based airlines will make a total of 155 weekly flights to Cuba, with room for up to 90 flights per day under the current authorization. As of now, though, the airlines have not applied for that many daily routes.


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