MIAMI — At least nine American carriers have filed applications with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), seeking the approval of regular flights to Cuba, with capital city Havana as the most coveted destination.
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 can go to Havana while the rest should be allocated to other Cuban cities.
These scheduled flights complement the existing charter routes, which now will likely face a stiff competition in terms of fares and service.
“The opening of US-Cuba scheduled flights isn’t ideal news for the charter carriers, but it’s not their death knell, either. They’ll simply have to pursue new business opportunities. This is where their business and marketing creativity will be tested” commented Henry Harteveldt, Industry Travel Analyst. “A number of options exist, including sports charters, corporate shuttles, and leisure vacation charters, among other options.” Harteveldt said.
Among these carriers, Eastern Air Lines (EA) is one of the most prominent carriers offering charter services to Cuba with 90 flights per month to five cities. The carrier has also opted to bid for scheduled services, all from its hub in Miami, to Havana, Camagüey and Holguín. The airline assured that these will not replace its current charter flights, which will continue.
One of the most surprising applications is from Alaska Airlines (AS). The Seattle-based carrier filed for two daily non-stop flights from Los Angeles to Havana. According to AS, the Los Angeles metro area has the largest Cuban-American population in the Western United States.
In the recent years, Alaska has been growing its route system, offering international flights to Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico. The airline says that, with its partner airlines, it offers more than 110 nonstop destinations from Los Angeles.
— Alaska Airlines (@AlaskaAir) March 3, 2016
Delta Air Lines (DL), which is a big rival to Alaska in the Seattle market, also bid for scheduled services, all to Havana, from Miami, Atlanta, New York’s JFK and Orlando. “If approved, these frequencies would increase the strength of our network, advancing Delta’s goal to be the best U.S. airline in Latin America and the Caribbean” said Nicolas Ferri, Delta’s Vice President – Latin America and the Caribbean.
— Delta News Hub (@DeltaNewsHub) March 2, 2016
American Airlines (AA) applied for more than half of the possible slots to Havana plus routes to five other cities. The airline has a large hub in Miami, and has made it clear that it will play a major role in the future flights between both countries, with a total of 18 daily flights from Miami to Havana, Santa Clara, Holguín, Varadero, Camaguey and Cienfuegos. American also proposed to serve Havana from Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago and Los Angeles. Philadelphia was not included in the proposed routes.
“American is the undisputed leader in charter service between the United States and Cuba. Over the past 25 years, we’ve flown more U.S.-Cuba charter flights than any other carrier.” CEO Doug Parker said in a statement.
“American has been preparing for this day for decades.” – Doug Parker, CEO
— American Airlines (@AmericanAir) March 2, 2016
Another airline that is relying on the large Florida market is JetBlue (B6). The carrier requested scheduled flights to Havana, Camagüey, Holguín, and Santa Clara from Fort Lauderdale, one of its major focus cities, as well as services to Havana from New York’s JFK, Orlando, Tampa, Newark and Boston.
“Continuing to reward legacy carriers by granting their requests in this proceeding will further solidify their already-dominant market positions and result in further concentration, diminished competition, high airfares and a lack of innovative and meaningful competition,” B6 said in its application.
— JetBlue Airways (@JetBlue) March 2, 2016
JetBlue’s routes from Fort Lauderdale will be challenged by a small yet ambitious competitor. Silver Airways (3M), which offers a number of routes between Florida and the Bahamas, has applied for services from five Florida cities: Key West, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and Fort Myers/Naples to Havana, as well as flights to other nine Cuban destinations from Fort Lauderdale, its South Florida hub.
“While many airlines will apply to serve the large, lucrative Havana routes, Silver is applying to provide convenient, direct service to all 10 Cuban destinations” said Silver President and Chief Executive Sami Teittinen.
Also, Southwest Airlines (WN) wants to fly to Havana from Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando. It also applied for daily flights from Fort Lauderdale to Varadero and Santa Clara. Following its acquisition of AirTran in 2011, WN expanded rapidly in the Caribbean and in Latin America, and is now serving a dozen destinations in the region.
According to the airline, its low-fare model will help keep the Cuba market competitive and called service to the country an “essential” part of its expansion plans utilizing the new five-gate international terminal in Fort Lauderdale, scheduled to open in June 2017.
— Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) March 3, 2016
Ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCCs) want also their share of flights. Particularly, Frontier Airlines (F9) said on Thursday that it has applied to a weekly non-stop flight between Philadelphia and Varadero, Cuba, besides bidding a one-stop flight in Miami from Philadelphia to both Santa Clara and Camaguey in Cuba, competing with American Airlines to obtain some of these routes.
Finally, the last, but not the least, is United Airlines (UA). The Chicago-based carrier is asking for daily flights between Newark and Havana with two flights on Saturdays, besides weekly services from Chicago, Houston and Washington D.C. to the capital city of Cuba as well.
— United (@united) March 2, 2016
The DOT will now review the requests, and it is expected to award the routes to Havana before the end of the summer. Then, the awarded airlines will have to request permits to Cuban authorities to operate in the country before start selling seats. The scheduled flights, the first in over half a century, could begin by fall.
Travel restrictions for Americans will remain, even though these have been eased. To date, 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.