American Airlines has become the first U.S. carrier to open a service center in Havana, another step toward normalizing travel between Cuba and the United States—and a sign that U.S. businesses hope the new Trump administration will maintain positive relations with the Cuban government of Raúl Castro. The inauguration ceremony, including cutting a red ribbon, took place yesterday at a business center in the upscale, neighborhood of Miramar, Cuba, where other non-U.S. international carriers have long had ticket counters.
The move will assist Cuban travelers, who have limited access to the Internet and no access to credit cards needed to book online, more easily purchase plane tickets to the U.S. "We have about 15 percent or 20 percent of our customers originating in Cuba so we will be able to facilitate the ticketing," American Airline's regional sales director, Christine Valls, stated at the opening ceremony.
Collin Laverty, president of one of the leading travel providers to the island, Cuba Educational Travel, characterized the new office as "a huge step" for U.S.-Cuba business interaction. American Airlines, he said, "represents a major U.S. brand operating on the ground, hiring Cuban workers, flying its flag in Havana's most prominent business district and taking a stab at dealing with the communication gap between the U.S. and Cuban market."
As part of former President Obama's effort to normalize relations with Cuba, last summer his administration authorized 10 U.S. airlines to begin flying directly to Cuba from various major cities around the United States. Alaska, Delta, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit Airlines, United, Sun Country Airlines and Silver Airways now fly some multiple routes a day between the two countries. American Airlines currently conducts 10 daily flights from Miami and Charlotte to Havana, as well as five other Cuban cities, among them Camaguey, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Santa Clara and Varadero.
Last November 28, American Airlines flight No. 17 became the first commercial jetliner in 50 years to depart from Miami and land in Havana. The plane was greeted with a water cannon salute on the tarmac of Jose Martí International Airport. "It's a monumental day of great historic relevance with Miami being the epicenter of the Cuban-American community and American's hub for the region," said American's vice president, Ralph Lopez. "We're excited to live in these exciting times and serve Havana."
That very same morning, however, then president-elect Trump used his Twitter account to throw cold water on the celebration and threaten the future of engagement between Washington and Havana. "If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people, and the U.S. as a whole," he tweeted, "I will terminate the deal."
With their newly established market in Cuba at stake, U.S. airlines are stepping up lobbying efforts on the new Trump administration, appealing to its pro-business orientation. "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," according to a representative of the airline trade association, Airlines for America.
"U.S. airlines have been critical in helping to lift 55 years of failed policy," notes James Williams, who leads Engage Cuba, a pro-travel business association. "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."