MIAMI — Alaska Airlines launched a daily flight Thursday morning from Los Angeles to Havana. The new service comes in a moment in which the opening to Cuba is giving way to an uncertain future.
Last February, the United States and Cuba signed a new civil aviation agreement, which allows for up to 110 additional scheduled flights. Of these, only 20 were allocated to Havana. By March, ten American carriers filed applications with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), seeking the approval of these regular flights.
One of the most surprising applications was from Alaska Airlines, which filed for two daily non-stop flights from Los Angeles to Havana. According to the Seattle-based carrier, the Los Angeles metro area has the largest Cuban-American population in the Western United States.
Alaska Airlines won the sole West Coast route awarded by the DOT, a single daily round-trip flight that starts in Seattle, continues to Los Angeles and then onward to Havana and back.
Despite the loosening of restrictions on travel, visits for tourism purposes remain illegal. US travelers to Cuba must qualify under one of a dozen categories authorized by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control that include family visits, government business, humanitarian projects and journalistic, educational or religious activities.
The Republican Congress has given no indications it will loosen the long-standing commercial embargo with Cuba, in place since 1960. President-elect Donald Trump has also made harsh statements regarding the current US-Cuba relationships, while criticizing President Obama’s decisions to liberalize travel and financial restrictions.
Alaska Airlines’ inaugural Cuba flight carried 50 political, business and cultural leaders from California and Washington state, who took part in an educational and trade mission.
“We sometimes overlook the fact that air travel holds tremendous power to connect people and overcome boundaries,” said Joe Sprague, Alaska Airlines’ senior vice president of communications and external relations. “This new West Coast service is another historic step in opening up relations between our two countries and we’re thrilled to host a delegation of trade, tourism and educational leaders to explore Cuba’s capital city.”
The new route will be flown on Alaska Airlines’ Boeing 737-900ERs, which offer 16 seats in First Class and 165 in Main Cabin.
While the inaugural flight to Havana is a first for Alaska, it isn’t the first time the airline has flown to Cuba. In the early 1970s, Alaska flew U.S. Military Airlift Command charter flights to the base at Guantanamo Bay, as well as charters to Caribbean locations such as Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Panama.
Alaska works together with Cuba Travel Services to help customers interested in visiting the country. The airline encourages customers to contact the travel service company for assistance in obtaining travel visas, hotel accommodation and ground transportation.