By Alexander Britell
Let the commercial aviation battle for Cuba begin.
The US and Cuba have officially finalized their landmark air service agreement, paving the way for the imminent launch of regularly-scheduled commercial flights.
“We are excited to announce the availability of new scheduled air service opportunities to Cuba for U.S. carriers, shippers, and the traveling public, and we will conduct this proceeding in a manner designed to maximize public benefits,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The agreement will provides for both countries to offer up to 20 daily roundtrip flights per day between US cities and Havana, along with up to 10 daily roundtrip flights between the United States and each of Cuba’s nine other international airports.
That means the opportunities for US carriers to operate up to 110 daily flights between the US and Cuba; the agreement does not affect charter service, which has been operating for some time.
Now the question is which major carrier will be the first to get approval for flights to Cuba, with American launching the first shot. The agreement means the DOT will select which U.S. carriers will be able to offer scheduled flights to Cuba and from which U.S. points.
In making its selection, the Department said it would consider which proposals will offer and maintain the best service to the traveling and shipping public.
“The Department recognizes the eagerness of U.S. carriers to take advantage of these new Cuba opportunities, and intends to reach a final decision as expeditiously as possible,” it said in a statement.
American Airlines was the first to issue a statement on the agreement on Tuesday, applauding the move and saying it “looks forward to submitting a Cuba service proposal to the Department of Transportation in the coming weeks.”
American said it would plan to use its hub at Miami International Airport in the application, although it said it was also considering applying to serve Cuba from other hubs.
Last year, American operated approximately 1,200 charter flights to Cuba, the most of any US carrier.
“American Airlines commends the U.S. government for its commitment to re-establishing cultural and economic ties between the U.S. and Cuba, and for laying the groundwork to restore scheduled air service between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years,” said American’s Chairman and CEO Doug Parker. “We applaud the Administration for making commercial air service a priority and we thank Secretary Foxx, Secretary Kerry and their teams for their leadership in finalizing this arrangement.
But the carrier has faced increasing competition from JetBlue, which has been steadily expanding its presence in the Caribbean and ramping up its charter service to Cuba from both Florida and New York.
JetBlue has made no secret of its own interest in flights to Cuba, with CEO Robin Hayes joining New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on a high-profile trade delegation to Cuba last year.
“JetBlue congratulates Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on signing today’s air services agreement in Havana and commends the Department of Transportation, Secretary John Kerry and the Department of State and the Obama Administration for their work on this important milestone,” said Rob Land, JetBlue’s senior vice president government affairs & associate general counsel. “As a leading airline to the Caribbean and as an experienced carrier serving Cuba with charter flights since 2011, JetBlue eagerly awaits the opportunity to grow our service with regularly scheduled routes between various U.S. and Cuban cities. We look forward to providing the affordable, high-quality service that sets JetBlue apart. We hope the next dots on our Caribbean route map will be regularly scheduled service to and from Cuba.”
Of course, even when commercial flights begin, US citizens will still need to qualify under one of the 12 exemptions for licensed Cuba travel in order to legally travel to Cuba.