Later this year, for the first time in more than half a century, American tourists will be able to hop on a jet from any major U.S. airport and fly directly to Havana.
The dramatic change, which comes in the wake of restored diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, is only the latest in a series of openings by the Obama administration designed to chip away at the long-running trade embargo, in force in varying degrees since 1962.
Only Congress can revoke that embargo and the travel ban against Cuba it entails. Even so, the White House is pushing hard to end that policy; more than 20 members of Congress — mostly Democrats but also some Republicans — are to accompany Obama to Havana on Air Force One. In fact, recent polls suggest that a majority of Republicans, even those in South Florida, now favor abolishing all U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba.
On March 17, prior to President Obama’s historic visit to Havana and meeting with Raúl Castro, the Obama administration eased barriers for Americans to legally travel to Cuba under the 12 authorized categories. These include educational, cultural, people-to-people and humanitarian visits, as well as a relaxation of trade and banking regulations that make it easier for Americans to use credit cards while on the island.
With the conclusion of a bilateral air travel agreement, 13 U.S. airlines are now vying for 110 daily flights linking the two countries. All told, the companies — which also include cargo carrier FedEx — are seeking more than 300 weekly flights, though the U.S. Department of Transportation is limiting traffic, for now, to 20 daily routes to Havana and 10 daily flights to nine other Cuban cities including Camagüey, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Varadero and Santiago de Cuba.
The list of airlines hoping to crack the Cuban market is long, and includes Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Dynamic International Airways, Eastern, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver Airways, Southwest, Spirit and United.
Perhaps the most aggressive has been American, which already has a major hub in Miami and has been the “undisputed leader” in charter service from MIA since 1991, according to CEO Doug Parker. In its application to the DOT, American said it operated 1,084 Cuba charters, compared to JetBlue’s 221 and Delta’s four. AA is seeking more than half the possible slots to Havana along with service from Miami to Camagüey, Holguín, Santa Clara and Varadero; it also wants to fly to Havana with daily flights from Charlotte and Dallas/Fort Worth, and weekly flights from Chicago and Los Angeles.
Other exotic pairings of cities being sought include Frontier (Philadelphia to Camagüey); Alaska (Seattle-Havana); MN Airlines (Minneapolis-Varadero); United (Newark-Havana) and JetBlue (Fort Lauderdale-Holguín).
Charter airline business picks up
Last year, more than 900,000 passengers traveled to and from Cuba via charter airlines through MIA, up from 696,359 in 2014. The new flights will likely put strain on the airport, as well as on Havana’s newly renovated Aeropuerto Internacional Jose Martí.
To that end, a subsidiary of Brazil’s Odebrecht has won a contract to expand the airport’s Terminal 3. According to reports in Cuban state media, Odebrecht’s ICO unit — which is part of the consortium that manages Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão International Airport — will build a new installation next to Terminal 3 and connect it to the existing building. This is expected to double José Martí’s capacity upon completion in two years.
Proposed U.S. ferry service to Cuba, meanwhile, continues to be a hot topic, with a number of South Florida ports including Miami, Key West, Port Manatee, Port Everglades and Tampa pushing for daily passenger and cargo service now that bilateral relations have been restored. In January, the Miami Herald reported that Miami-Dade County officials want to develop a downtown waterfront property adjacent to Royal Caribbean’s port headquarters into a passenger ferry terminal serving Cuba.
In mid-2015, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control granted licenses to at least five companies — Airline Brokers Co. of Miami, Baja Ferries USA, Havana Ferry Partners, United Caribbean Lines and America Cruise Ferries of Puerto Rico — to begin offering ferry service.
But officials in Havana have decided they’re in no rush to reciprocate, said Bruce Nierenberg, CEO of United Caribbean Lines.
“The Cuban government has said they’ll hold off for several months. It’s not a priority now,” Nierenberg told the Sun-Sentinel, noting that as U.S. air travel picks up, Cuba will focus on building more hotel rooms and on developing facilities for cruises, whose passengers do not need hotels.
“It won’t start before the second half of 2016 at the earliest,” Nierenberg added. “Cuba is taking its time. They’re thinking it through. You have to have a lot of patience.”