U.S. Approves 6 Airlines for Direct Flights to Cuba

New York Times

By: Julie Hirschfeld Davis

The Obama administration on Friday authorized six American airlines to begin direct flights to Cuba as soon as fall, paving the way for the resumption of scheduled air travel between the United States and Cuba after more than 50 years.

The Department of Transportation said it had approved applications from American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines to begin flying to Cuba from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The action was the latest piece of President Obama’s push to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States after more than half a century of hostility. In place of American efforts to isolate Cuba, an island nation 90 miles south of Florida, the new policy encourages Americans to travel there.

The service approved on Friday will fly to nine Cuban cities, including Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Matanzas and Santiago de Cuba. The Transportation Department said it would announce routes to Havana, the capital, this summer. Those could include service from New York, Washington and Boston, for which several major carriers have applied.

American officials signed an agreement with Cuban authorities in February to allow for re-establishing scheduled flights — including 20 daily round-trip flights to Havana — and the Department of Transportation invited American airlines to apply. Interest in flying to Havana was overwhelming. The airlines applied for three times as many flights daily as the agreement allows, and the administration is still choosing among those proposals.

The flights are an example of Mr. Obama’s determination to use executive and administrative authority to get around the United States embargo with Cuba, including a tourism ban, still in place despite his repeated calls to repeal it.

The Treasury Department in March relaxed travel restrictions to allow Americans to take “people to people” educational trips to Cuba without special permission from the United States government, and it lifted limits on the use of American dollars there.

“Last year, President Obama announced that it was time to ‘begin a new journey’ with the Cuban people,” Anthony Foxx, the secretary of transportation, said in a statement on Friday. “Today, next we are delivering on his promise.”

Many Republicans oppose Mr. Obama’s effort to establish warmer relations with Cuba, and despite bipartisan efforts to remove the statutory restrictions, Congress has not approved legislation to do so.

Still, support for such measures has grown and will continue to grow when scheduled air service resumes, giving lawmakers parochial reasons — including airlines, airports and employees in their states and districts — to drop their opposition, said James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba, a group lobbying for stronger ties. Mr. Obama’s advisers have long argued that the opening with Cuba was bound to succeed and become irreversible once American citizens and businesses had a self-interested financial reason to back it.

“It’s brought in a whole set of new, powerful players to the table who now have a vested interest in this,” Mr. Williams said. “Now there’s a real dollar figure and money coming into people’s districts and their airports. If these flights are successful, there will be a lot of pressure to accelerate that or, at a minimum, to preserve it so they don’t lose revenue.”

A Senate committee is expected next Thursday to approve the addition of language to a spending bill that would lift remaining restrictions on travel between the United States and Cuba, and a provision that aims to expand agricultural exports to Cuba. The measures passed with bipartisan support last year, but died during negotiations with the House, where Republicans had attached provisions to block the opening with Cuba.

This year, some Republicans who have strongly opposed Mr. Obama’s policy shift said they supported the re-establishment of scheduled flights.

Representative Rob Woodall, Republican of Georgia, joined his state’s congressional delegation in writing to the Department of Transportation in March in support of Delta Air Lines’ application to fly between Atlanta and Havana. In a message at that time to his constituents, he said he disagreed “with the president’s foolish new policy toward a cruel, authoritarian regime,” but had an “important role as your representative” to ensure their interests were heard.

American airlines will also have a powerful financial incentive to lobby for greater openness between the United States and Cuba, Mr. Williams argued. Voters are likely to be sympathetic once they experience the absurdity of a system in which tourism is technically prohibited, but in practice allowed, he added.

“I can take out my phone and book a flight to Cuba, and yet I still have to go through this charade that I’m going down for a cultural experience,” he said. “It’s a little over the top.”

In the near term, the advent of scheduled air service may be less of a bonanza than many have expected. Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation analyst, said the initial travelers to Cuba will mainly be adventure travelers and Cuban-Americans visiting relatives and friends. The dearth of high-quality resorts and amenities will limit Cuba’s appeal as a tourist destination for now, he added.

“This pent-up demand for Cuba just isn’t there,” said Mr. Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting and research firm.