By: Tim Devaney
Major airlines are competing for a limited number of flights to Cuba, with the Obama administration considering whether to allow a direct route to the island from Washington, D.C.
The Transportation Department has been tasked with divvying up the flights, which were negotiated as part of an agreement between the Obama administration and Cuban government.
Most carriers are proposing flights out of Florida, where there is a large Cuban-American population.
But United Airlines is also pushing for Washington-to-Havana service that would connect lawmakers and diplomats in the capitals. The airline is also applying for flights out of Chicago, Houston, and Newark, N.J.
To win a route, United must fend off competition from about a dozen other carriers, including Delta Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
“A lot of airlines are focusing on Florida, given the geographic ties,” said Steve Morrissey, vice president of regulatory policy at United.
“But there’s a strong desire for flights to Cuba from all across the country,” Morrissey added. “It’s something we can offer out of Washington that no one else can claim.”
James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said flights out of Washington would provide a “symbolic connection that ties the two capitals together.”
“The future of the U.S.-Cuba relationship is going to be determined by the lawmakers that sit in both these capitals,” Williams said. “So having these two cities connected much more closely and easily is going to do a lot for the relationship.”
Traveling to Cuba is still subject to numerous restrictions, despite the new U.S. policy toward the island.
While the Obama administration has loosened travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans who are visiting family, government officials, journalists, students and volunteers on humanitarian projects, tourism is still prohibited.
Only Congress can completely lift the travel embargo.
The Obama administration struck a deal with the Cuban government in February to allow as many as 110 flights each day between the two countries.
The Transportation Department last month approved applications from six airlines to fly to some of the less popular areas of Cuba, but it is still weighing how to split up only 20 flights to Havana, the Communist nation’s most popular tourist destination and its political hub.
A decision on the Havana flights is expected in the coming weeks.
United is angling for weekly flights out of Washington, and Morrissey says the airline will be ready to take off this fall if its application is approved.
Operating out of Dulles International Airport in nearby Virginia, United already connects Washingtonians with more than a dozen capitals around the world, including London, Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin, Rome, Brussels, Madrid, Lisbon, Mexico City, Guatemala City, Tokyo and Beijing. The company sees Havana as a logical addition to the list.
“We focus a lot on capital-to-capital flights,” Morrissey told The Hill.
While a direct route could help foster diplomatic ties, critics have raised human rights and security concerns.
The competition for the flight routes has spilled into Congress, where a number of lawmakers are pushing for the Transportation Department to approve flights to Cuba out of their home states.
Washington flights would “strengthen the new diplomatic relationship between our nation’s capital and Cuba,” Virginia Sens. Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) wrote in a joint letter to the Transportation Department.
“As relations between the United States and Cuba improve, it is critical that our national capital region obtain nonstop air service to Havana,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in a separate letter to the Transportation Department.
“United’s Washington Dulles-Havana service would provide an important link between capital cities and serve a promising and growing diplomatic relationship and export market,” she added.
United has also gained the support of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser (D).
But some lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), remain opposed to travel between the U.S. and Cuba because of continued human rights violations on the island. They don’t want to offer a show of support — or turn a blind eye — to actions from the Communist government there.
“Sen. Rubio continues to believe that the expansion of travel to Cuba only benefits and enriches the Castro regime,” said spokeswoman Kristen Morrell.
The Transportation Department’s decision is further complicated by airport security concerns.
Some Republicans have raised concerns about terrorists exploiting weaknesses in Cuban airport security to target the U.S.
Those concerns were compounded by the fact that the Cuban government last month blocked a congressional delegation from traveling to the Communist nation to observe airport security measures.
The congressional delegation, which included House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), along with Reps. John Katko (R-N.Y.), Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), said their visas were not approved.
“We still don’t know if Cuba has the adequate body scanners and explosive detection systems in place, whether it has the technology to screen for fraudulent passports or IDs, whether or how aviation workers are screened, and if federal air marshals will be allowed to fly missions to Cuba on commercial flights,” Katko said.
Katko, chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation, warned that direct flights between Washington and Havanawould “pose unique security risks” for the nation’s capital.
“There are serious national security implications to starting direct commercial flights between Washington, D.C., and Havana,” Katko told The Hill in a statement.
“The Cuban government blocked our visit to the island that was intended to focus on airport security prior to this historic opening,” he said. “I do not believe commercial service between the U.S. and Cuba should start until Congress has done its job and conducted oversight on security at Cuba’s 10 international airports.”