The United States approved scheduled flights to Cuban cities other than Havana from five US cities, with service starting as soon as this fall, the US Transportation Department said in a statement on Friday, marking the first time in five decades that US airlines have received authorization to fly regularly scheduled flights to the island nation.
American Airlines Group Inc, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways Corp, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines Co and Sun Country Airlines will be allowed up to 10 daily round-trip flights, the department said. The flights will be allowed from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis/St. Paul, it added.
President Barack Obama announced more than a year ago that it was time to "begin a new journey" with Cuba. "Today we are delivering on his promise," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.
The United States and Cuba signed an agreement in February restoring commercial air service between the former Cold War foes for the first time in decades. Under the agreement, 20 daily round-trip flights will be allowed to Havana but US carriers have requested nearly 60 flights per day, far exceeding the limit.
The Transportation Department said it expects to reach a final decision on which carriers will get the limited Havana slots this summer.
The department said seven US airlines applied to provide service to other Cuban cities. With the exception of Eastern Airlines, which has not received necessary licensing, the government approved all of the route proposals.
Groups that support the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba said the flights were a step in the right direction, but that there's still more to be done.
"Commercial flights will allow for better service and cheaper fares for American travelers and provide opportunities for increased engagement between the US and Cuba," said President of Engage Cuba James Williams. "It makes no sense that Americans will soon be able to go online and book a flight to Cuba, but US policy will still prohibit tourist travel to our island neighbor. Today's announcement further proves that the travel ban is an outdated relic of the Cold War era. It's time for Congress to act and end the travel ban."
Critics of the Obama administration's resumption of diplomatic and other relations with Cuba say the Communist regime is guilty of human rights violations for imprisoning political activists and others for any criticism of the government. The country has been run by Fidel Casto and his brother, Raul, since the Cuban revolution in 1959 overthrew the US-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista.