Passengers eager to travel to Cuba on commercial U.S. airlines won’t be
able to book flights as they would for any other destination just yet.
Beginning Friday, U.S. regulations will no longer prohibit air carriers
from scheduling regular flights to Cuba, the Obama administration
announced Thursday. In practice, however, establishing regular air
travel will take some time — though charter flights that have existed
for years will continue.
Still, the announcement prompted a warm response from airlines. One of
them, United Airlines, named the airport hubs it plans to propose for
“We plan to serve Cuba, subject to government approvals, and look
forward to doing so from our global gateways of Newark and Houston,”
spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said in a statement.
Before any routes are established, the U.S. Department of Transportation
must sit down with the Cuban government to negotiate a civil aviation
agreement spelling out the rules for air travel between the two
countries. Until that happens, the new rules will be on hold, the
department said in a notice Thursday.
The existing agreement dates back to 1953 and has essentially been
dormant for a half century. Civil aviation agreements can cover any
number of issues, ranging from how many flights are permitted to how
airlines can import needed maintenance parts.
It’s unclear how such an agreement might comply with the 54-year-old
U.S. trade embargo, which can only be lifted by Congress and generally
prohibits American companies from doing business in Cuba. Obama
administration officials said Thursday that the new rules comply with
the law, though they didn’t explain the nuts and bolts of how air
carriers might deal with issues such as purchasing fuel, renting
ticketing space and paying airport landing fees.
Like United, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and
Spirit Airlines also expressed interest Thursday in the new regulations,
though they also noted that it’s too early to get into specifics.
“We are reviewing the changes to the Cuba travel policy and will
continue to be guided by the laws and policies of the U.S. government
and the governments of the countries we serve as they evolve,” said
American, the largest carrier at Miami International Airport.
If the U.S. and Cuba reach an aviation deal, the details will be crucial
for airlines. An agreement could set an open relationship, with no
restrictions on the number of carriers, flights or destinations, for
example, or it could limit travel in some or all of those areas. A
restrictive agreement could then require the Department of
Transportation to decide, based on carriers’ proposals, which U.S.
airlines could fly to what airports and when.
Cuba would presumably also try to negotiate new markets for its
government-run airline, Cubana de Aviación, though aviation-industry
officials in the U.S. say Cubana’s planes would likely first require
Americans who fall under certain permitted travel categories have been
able to book trips to Cuba on charter flights that often use major
airlines’ off-duty planes. The charters will continue, at least until
the new rules take effect. Once airlines start flying regularly to the
island, travelers will no longer need to go through middlemen charter
companies or travel agents, most of them based in Miami.
That would make it easier — and cheaper — to fly, but also likely hurt
the charter companies’ business.
Source: For U.S. airlines, new Cuba travel rules don’t mean flights just
yet | The Miami Herald –