Last updated: 11:49 AM ET, Thu March 31 2016

Airlines' Fight for Cuba Flights Is Getting Dirty

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | March 31, 2016

Airlines' Fight for Cuba Flights Is Getting Dirty

PHOTO: Cuba's Jose Marti International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

The competition for the limited number of flights between the United States and Cuba has been quite heated. The DOT will be unable to give all airlines the slots they want when it doles out the 110 daily flights later this year. This is especially true for the 20 daily flights into Havana.

Most airlines will be disappointed when the Havana slots are assigned because there simply aren’t nearly enough under the current U.S.-Cuba air travel agreement to go around.

Pulling out all the stops

Airlines are well aware of this, and they are pulling out all the stops to make sure that they give themselves the best possible chance to score at least some of the coveted slots.

U.S. carriers had already made their case for why they deserved to have their request for flights approved. They have also been able to submit supporting documentation that they think could help their case. Over the past couple of weeks, the airlines not only submitted more information that explains why they should be awarded the routes, but they have also given statements to the DOT about why their competitors should not be given the flights they requested.

READ MORE: What Do New Cuba Flights Actually Mean for Travel and Tourism?

Criticizing the competition

For example, JetBlue told the DOT that Delta was prone to discontinue routes that did not suit it right away. Blue explained this as “the 'Delta Dartboard' strategy of adding new routes and then quickly discontinuing service."  

Delta had a comeback of sorts. It criticized JetBlue’s proposal to offer flights from two Florida cities, Orlando and Tampa. "JetBlue's proposals to serve Tampa essentially duplicates its own proposed service at Orlando. The Cuban American population in the catchment areas, defined by a 90-minute drive from Orlando and a 120-minute drive from Tampa, overlap almost entirely."

Southwest has also gotten involved. It has criticized Delta’s lack of connections for proposed Cuba flights from Orlando. In the same breath, the airline went after fellow upstart JetBlue, criticizing it for criticizing Delta in its DOT statements.

READ MORE: How The Bahamas Is Responding to US-Cuba Flights

Who has the best case?

American Airlines, meanwhile, has stuck with what it thinks is a winning pitch: that it is in the best position geographically to offer Cuba flights in general and flights to Havana in particular. It contends that JetBlue and Southwest would fly to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale, but a majority of the customers for Cuba flights would be from the Miami area, where the highest concentration of Cuban Americans is located.

However, JetBlue was quick to point out that American has not had the best track record of late: “To the detriment of travelers, American took advantage of its dominance to charge high airfares and offer inferior customer service.”   

It will still probably be a couple of months, at least, before the DOT makes any decisions about the slots. This means that things could potentially get more ugly. The campaign for Cuba flights could start to resemble the kind of mudslinging match that we are seeing in the current presidential race.

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