The U.S. Department of Transportation yesterday approved eight U.S. airline companies to begin flying to Cuba's capital city, Havana. Delta, United, American, Southwest and JetBlue airlines are among the carriers selected from 20 companies that had bid for the coveted route. The other airlines that received routes are Alaska Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines.
The announcement comes as part of the history-making restoration of commercial air transportation between Cuba and the United States—a major step forward in the efforts of President Obama and President Raúl Castro to normalize relations between Washington and Havana. Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx traveled to Cuba aboard the first commercial flight since 1961, along with 150 other travelers, reporters and business VIPs. The JetBlue flight took off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and landed in Santa Clara, near the center of Cuba.
"Today's actions are the result of months of work by airlines, cities, the U.S. government and many others toward delivering on President Obama's promise to re-engage with Cuba," Secretary Foxx stated. "Transportation has a unique role in this historic initiative and we look forward to the benefits these new services will provide to those eligible for Cuba travel."
Technically, it remains illegal for Americans to go to Cuba for tourism and vacation. But President Obama has created broad exemptions to the Cold War-era restrictions that now allow virtually anyone to qualify for "purposeful" travel to the island. Passengers booking tickets online are now able to click on a box of one of 12 categories, including professional, educational, or "people-to-people" travel. The airline companies are also selling visas along with the tickets to streamline the travel experience.
By the end of the year, some 20 U.S. flights per day will arrive at Havana's Jose Martí International airport from key hubs such as Miami, Atlanta, New York, Houston and Los Angeles. With additional flights to provincial airports, analysts predict some 300 weekly flights to the island by 2017, bringing a significant increase in U.S. visitors and pressure on Congress to remove all restrictions to travel. "If Congress acts to lift the travel ban," predicts Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International, which, through Starwood Resorts, holds a contract with the Cuban government to manage hotels in Havana, "the number of U.S. visitors is likely to grow ... to 5 million within just a few years."