New commercial air service to Cuba is part of the process of normalizing relations between the US and Cuba.
Existing flights between the two nations have been limited to what is called “charter” flights because – technically speaking – the flights are not part of a “regular” schedule and do not operate under a bilateral Air Transport Agreement. Nevertheless, the charter flights fly daily and often use planes from the inventory of US flag carriers such as American Airlines.
Previously, the US and Cuba did not have an Air Transport Agreement. This year, the two nations signed a new agreement (the last one dates back to 1953), and this agreement is what allows new scheduled commercial service to commence.
Both Cuba and the US government (via the FAA) must approve airlines and flight schedules. It’s a complex dance between two countries trying to normalize relations.
In August 2016, American Airlines and JetBlue received final approval from the Cuban government to begin commercial airline service to several airports on the island – excluding Havana for the time being.
JetBlue, with a flight scheduled to Santa Clara from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Aug. 31, will be the first regularly scheduled flight to Cuba in more than 50 years.
American Airlines will follow up the next week with commercial service from Miami International Airport beginning September 7th.
For consumers, prices for flights to Cuba from the US are expected to come down significantly with new scheduled commercial service.
At this point, JetBlue has only received the green light for its flights to Santa Clara, but it also hopes to begin service to Holguín and Camagüey in November. Havana flights have yet to be approved by Cuba.
American, which plans twice-daily flights to Holguín, Santa Clara and Varadero and daily fights to Camagüey and Cienfuegos, has received Cuban government approval to land and take off from all five Cuban airports. In all, it will be offering 56 weekly flights to Cuba.
Existing charter flights will continue at the discretion of the charter companies themselves. “We don’t believe charter companies will be able to compete with the major carriers,” said Michael Zuccato, general manager at Cuba Travel Services, earlier this month. “We will stop operating charters from Tampa on a scheduled basis in early September. We’re still working on an exact date.”
The future of the two other Tampa charter companies — Island Travel & Tours and ABC Charters — remains unclear.
The US cities that are part of the applications to fly directly to Cuba are: Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Houston; Los Angeles; Newark, New Jersey; New York; and four in Florida — Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa.
US airlines that have applied include: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United.
The prospect of Cuba’s airlines flying to the US remains in doubt due to the outstanding claims matter.