Friday, February 12, 2016

U.S. Air Carriers to Begin Competing for Cuba Flights: Agreement to be signed by nations next week to resume full service

The Wall Street Journal
By Felicia Schwartz
Updated Feb. 12, 2016 5:13 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—U.S. air carriers will begin competing for routes and airport slots for travel to Cuba on Tuesday when an agreement takes effect to restore normal commercial air service between the two countries.

The U.S. and Cuba are expected to formally sign an agreement in Havana to resume air service between the countries. Once that happens, air carriers will have 15 days to submit applications to the Transportation Department for the routes they’d like to fly.

Senior U.S. officials said they expect to make a decision about which carriers get which routes this summer, and U.S. airline carriers will be able to sell tickets for them this fall.

“There’s no restriction on aircraft type or aircraft size, and so we expect to see additional analysis on what folks view the overall travel demand and traffic patterns between certain U.S. cities and certain U.S. regions to Cuba,” said Brandon Belford, deputy assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs at the Transportation Department.

The deal reached in Washington in December allows for up to 110 flights per day to Cuba, including 20 to Havana and 10 to each of Cuba’s nine other international airports.

U.S. officials expect there will be more demand than supply for the Havana flights, so that will generate intense competition for those routes. While the agreement allows for 110 flights per day, it is unlikely so many daily flights to Cuba will begin by the fall.

“We don’t expect the market to necessarily demand 10 per day to each of the other non-Havana destinations,” said Thomas Engle, deputy assistant secretary of state for transportation affairs. “We do expect…potentially more interest on the part of U.S. carriers, potentially exceeding 20 per day to Havana.”

For the routes to areas outside Havana, Mr. Belford said, the U.S. could decide to award those flights before the summer because there likely won’t be as much competition.

American Airlines Group Inc. said Friday it will apply to offer scheduled flights to the island nation that it has been serving for 25 years with charter flights. A spokesman for the largest U.S. airline by traffic said American will apply for permission to fly from Miami and other American hubs, which he declined to identify, to Havana and perhaps other Cuban destinations. Currently, American offers 24 weekly charters to Cuba from Miami; Tampa, Fla.; and Los Angeles.

JetBlue Airways Corp. also said they’d apply to offer regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, where it has operated charter flights since 2011.

“Our focus cities in New York and Florida are natural gateways to Havana and other Cuban destinations,” said Doug McGraw, a JetBlue spokesman.

Currently, there are about 10 to 15 daily charter flights to Cuba, primarily from Miami to Havana and other airports. American Airlines has charters from Miami; Tampa and Los Angeles, and JetBlue Airways Corp. flies from New York; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Tampa. Delta Air Lines Inc. has in the past offered charters from New York, Atlanta and Miami. Charter service will continue without any restrictions on the number of daily flights.

The coming restoration of normal commercial air service “provides for a very important sizable increase in travel between the two countries, and that reinforces the president’s objective,” Mr. Engle said.

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