Alaska Airlines launched today its first flight from Los Angeles to Havana.
The airline’s new service is part an agreement to normalize regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two nations. The agreement was negotiated in 2016 under Obama’s broader policy of engagement with Cuba.
Alaska Airlines won the only West Coast route awarded in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The daily roundtrip starts in Seattle, goes to Los Angeles and then onward to Havana and back.
Today’s flight marks the tail end of a wave of new daily flights from the U.S. to the island nation that today totals about 100. Previously, all direct flights to Cuba from the U.S. were charter flights.
The Obama administration loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba for a wide variety of purposes except vacation. U.S. travelers need to have a family ties, official business, or an educational, religious or humanitarian agenda to comply with existing rules. Most travelers comply with the rules by self-certifying under the “people-to-people” category that involves cultural engagement.
Cuba remains the only country in the world where Americans are subject to travel restrictions.
There is a major potential storm ahead for all the airlines that initiated Cuba service in recent months. Will Trump ground the aircraft?
“Your guess is as good as mine at this point,” Alaska Airlines Vice President of Capacity Planning John Kirby said.
“Obviously, there is always a potential that things could change,” he said. “But since service has started, it is difficult to envision us taking a big step backwards.”
Alaska Airlines will use use a 181-passenger Boeing 737-900ER for its Cuba flights.
“We think the allure of going to Cuba because it’s been restricted to most Americans for so many years is going to be a big driver bringing volume initially,” Kirby said Wednesday. “If restrictions are lessened even further and tourism is allowed, we think this will be the largest market in the Caribbean.”
“Turning it off would hurt the Cuban people,” said White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “It would cut off a lifeline to independent businesses. It would cut off a lifeline to Cuban families who depend on remittances. The new administration will have its own priorities to that engagement, but what we would not want to see is turning back the clock to an approach that had completely failed for over 50 years.”