Paving the way towards lifting the trade embargo, the U.S. and Cuban governments signed an agreement on Tuesday allowing scheduled flights between the two nations, easing restrictions, boosting tourism, and improving relations between the two nations.
The officials of two former Cold War rivals had announced in December 2015 that they would add scheduled commercial airline service to the current charter flights. The signing ceremony in Havana formalized the aviation announcement. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement,
“We are excited to announce the availability of new scheduled air service opportunities to Cuba for U.S. carriers, shippers, and the traveling public, and we will conduct this proceeding in a manner designed to maximize public benefits,”
— Charles H. Rivkin (@AmbRivkin) February 17, 2016
Until now, charter flights have been making around 100 crossings a week, mostly from Miami, but scheduled airlines were not permitted.
Since President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro agreed to start normalizing relations in December 2014, U.S. travel to Cuba has rocketed. Scheduled flights between the two countries were resumed for the first time in more than five decades while the charter flights that have long served as the only bridge between the United States and Cuba continued after officials of both countries reached a preliminary agreement on Dec. 16.
Right now, the documents are going through a process of being translated and verified, which is expected to take a few more weeks. The U.S. Department of Transportation will issue a notice instructing U.S. air carriers how to submit applications for Cuban routes once the agreement is released.
Up to 110 flights a day will run from the United States to the island, significantly increasing the number of tourists and bring a boost to the economy. Following the announcement, nearly every major U.S. airline said it plans to apply for flights to Cuba.
American Airlines anticipates its Miami hub to play a big role in the return of commercial flights to the island, reported the Miami Herald. American Airlines vice president Howard Kass said, “Miami is very important to us, a big part of our plans. But we’ll also be applying for other U.S. gateways.”
JetBlue, Delta, United, and Spirit Airlines also confirmed that they are planning to join in and looking forward to gain approval for several routes between the nation. Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines have taken a more cautious line and are in two minds as to whether apply for the routes or not.
Americans still cannot visit Cuba as tourists. But since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro in December 2014, thousands of Americans have visited the island under a series of “specialist” tours for religious, cultural, journalistic, or educational purposes. “VFR” — visiting friends and relatives — is another popular category of travel.
Obama is known to be keen to visit the island before the end of his presidency, which would make him the first serving president to visit since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
U.S. deputy assistant secretary for transportation affairs, Thomas Engle, said the deal was proof of an improved relationship between the Cold War foes. An agreement about flights was stalled until now by negotiations over reparations for the 50-year embargo. Both sides feared of their aircraft being seized amid compensation claims. Negotiations over reparations are continuing, but the impasse has evidently been removed. Thomas Engle said, “The Cuban government will give thorough consideration to future requests from the US government to increase this level of service. The two governments reaffirm their commitment to strengthen their already close cooperation in aviation safety and security matters.”
U.S. airlines will have until March 2 to submit applications to the Department of Transportation for the routes they would like to fly, says RTE. The department will make their decision around the middle of March.Twenty flights a day will be permitted to Havana, and 10 daily flights to nine other Cuban airports.
[Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]