By: Melanie Zanona
U.S. airlines began lobbying Washington on Cuba last year as they fought to win commercial flight routes to the island nation for the first time in 50 years.
But travel advocates expect to see an even bigger lobbying push around the issue this year, with questions hanging over the new administration’s policies, including whether President Trump will reverse the historic opening of relations with Cuba.
Those concerns have the powerful airline industry, which invested a significant amount of time and resources into competing for and setting up the new flight routes, ramping up their efforts in Washington to preserve those changes.
“The airlines will not cease their advocacy with respect to Cuba, but they’re going to change their strategy from focusing on seeking more [concessions] to focusing on preserving what they have,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
More than a year after former President Barack Obama announced he was restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. struck a deal with the Cuban government in February 2016 to allow scheduled air service to resume between the two countries.
The announcement sent the airline industry scrambling to secure slots — activity that was reflected in their year-end lobbying disclosure forms, filed last week.
JetBlue Airways, American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines all lobbied on Cuba at some point last year, as did the trade group Airlines for America (A4A).
“Our members serve new and emerging markets all over the world, and our focus is on ensuring an adequate framework is in place to help facilitate the movement of people and goods between our two nations,” said a spokesman for A4A, which represents most of the nation’s major air carriers, with the exception of Delta Air Lines.
None of the companies had previously mentioned lobbying on the issue in the last five years, with the exception of Alaska Airlines, which started working on the “topic of renewal of U.S. commercial air carrier service between U.S. and Cuba” in 2015.
“There was a time when U.S. companies, not just airlines, would do whatever it took legally to avoid the ‘C’ word in the lobbying disclosure forms,” Kavulich said. “It does show quite a bit of evolution to see ... the types of industries that haven’t been afraid to show that they have an interest in Cuba.”
Delta didn’t specifically mention Cuba in its disclosure forms, but said it lobbied on “International Air Service Rights Issues (U.S. Government Bilateral Negotiations).” A spokeswoman for the airline said that includes, but is not limited to, efforts around Cuba.
The competition for a limited number of slots turned fierce as airlines submitted their proposals and took aim at their rivals. Delta, for example, called American’s “request for ten (10!) of the 20 flights ... out of proportion,” while American called Southwest’s application “seriously flawed.”
The biggest Cuba lobbying push from airlines came in the third quarter of last year, which is when the Transportation Department finished divvying up the 110 daily flights to the island.
Ultimately, 10 airlines were awarded flight routes, which included 20 daily round-trip flights to Havana and 10 flights to nine smaller airports around the communist country. The carriers are: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit Airlines, United, Sun Country Airlines and Silver Airways.
But being granted a flight route wasn’t the only hurdle for those seeking air service to Cuba. Traveling to Cuba is still subject to numerous restrictions, despite the new U.S. policy toward the island.
While the Obama administration loosened travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans who are visiting family, as well as government officials, journalists, students and volunteers on humanitarian projects, tourism is still prohibited.
The airlines also found themselves playing defense against legislation in Congress that would have halted commercial flights to Cuba until an airport security review was conducted. U.S. airlines and A4A all reported lobbying on that bill last year. The measure was advanced by committee but never considered on the House floor.
“U.S. airlines have been critical in helping to lift 55 years of failed policy,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba. “Now, with newly re-established direct commercial service to 10 Cuban cities, we expect the airline industry will continue to push for changes that will get rid of arbitrary restrictions on traveling to Cuba.”
The industry could face even tougher battles this year, however.
Trump has threatened to reverse the opening of relations with Cuba if the communist government doesn’t adopt changes, though he has not yet revealed specific plans to change the U.S.-Cuba relationship.
“I have to follow up with you. We’ve got nothing that we’re ready to announce at this point,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer when he was recently pressed on the issue.
Any regulatory rollbacks could mean fewer aircraft passengers, hotel guests and travel customers, which could all result in less revenue for the airlines.
As a result, Kavulich expects air carriers to ramp up their lobbying efforts — especially with lawmakers who represent their headquarters or have Trump’s ear — in an effort to convince the new president to keep the current policies in place.
“Last year, they were excited about the potential of getting more,” Kavulich said. “This year, they’re hysterical over losing what they have.”