Cuba, US to allow commercial flights again after 50-year ban

People wait for passengers to arrive at the airport in Havana. © Str.
US and Cuban officials are scheduled to sign an agreement on Tuesday to re-establish air service between the countries for the first time in over half a century. Dozens of new flights will begin operating daily next fall, said US officials.

“This (agreement) provides for a very important, sizeable increase in travel between the two countries, and that reinforces the president’s objective” of building ties,” said Thomas Eagle, deputy assistant secretary of state for transportation affairs, said at a briefing, reported the Associated Press.

US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is scheduled to fly to Havana, Cuba on Tuesday to settle the deal. The signing will be the most significant development in US-Cuba trade relations since Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castrol announced in late 2014 that they would begin normalizing ties after decades of Cold War animosity.

Under the deal, US airlines can bid on routes for as many as 110 US-Cuba flights per day, more than five times the current number. All flights operating today are charters. The agreement allows for 20 US flights to Havana per day, in addition to 10-15 charter flights. The remaining flights will be to other Cuban airports.

Tuesday’s announcement will open a 15-day window for US airlines to bid on rights to new Cuba routes.

American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said the company plans to bid on routes from Miami and other unspecified “American hubs.” The carrier has operated charter flights since April 1991 and currently offers 22 weekly flights to the Caribbean country, according to Bloomberg News.

United Airlines is looking to serve Havana from its major hubs in Chicago, Houston, Washington, and Newark, New Jersey.

Meanwhile, JetBlue Airways said it’s “eagerly” awaiting the opportunity to increase its number of flights to Cuba from bases in New York and Florida, according to Bloomberg. Interest is also being shown by Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and Delta Air Lines.

While the agreement represents a loosening of restrictions, US law still prohibits travel to communist Cuba for tourist activities. US citizens can currently travel to the Caribbean nation for family visits, as well as for education, journalism, or government work.

The deal is also one-way. It does not contemplate flights by Cuba’s national airline to the US. Nearly 160,000 US leisure travelers flew to Cuba last year on charter flights.

In another historic development involving Cuba, Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, was in Havana on Friday to meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill. It was the first time a pope and Russian patriarch have ever met. There has been a schism between the two branches of Christianity for over 1,000 years.