Last updated: 12:11 PM ET, Thu December 17 2015

It’s Official: US, Cuba, Reach Deal On Commercial Flights

Airlines & Airports Rich Thomaselli December 17, 2015

It’s Official: US, Cuba, Reach Deal On Commercial Flights

PHOTO: Havana as seen from above. (Photo by David Cogswell)

The U.S State Department said this morning it has reached an agreement with Cuba to resume commercial air travel between the two countries, ending more than a half-century embargo on regularly scheduled flights.

The announcement comes on the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s announcement that the United States had normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba. In the year since, the two nations have re-opened embassies in Havana and Washington, resumed direct mail service last month, and have met numerous times to negotiate such issues both delicate and sublime.

Including regularly scheduled commercial air travel.

"This arrangement will continue to allow charter operations and establish scheduled air service, which will facilitate an increase in authorized travel, enhance traveler choices and promote people-to-people links between the two countries," the State Dept. said.

So you won’t have to charter your way to Cuba, or fly from third-party counties such as Canada and Mexico that did not have a ban on air travel as the U.S. did. However, don’t look on Expedia any time soon for a flight into Havana.

There are still restrictions from a political standpoint, and some major hurdles to overcome from an aviation standpoint, including that pesky U.S. law that still technically bars travel to Cuba for tourism – although travelers have overcome that for years by taking an education-based charter trip, for instance.

U.S. travelers still must meet at least one of 12 criteria to visit the country, such as having family on the island nation, or being Cuban-American themselves.

"While U.S. law continues to prohibit travel to Cuba for tourist activities, a stronger civil aviation relationship will facilitate growth in authorized travel between our two countries— a critical component of the President’s policy toward Cuba," the State Dept. said.

The Federal Aviation Administration also needs to become involved to make sure certain criteria and safety and security regulations are met. Experts say that could take three to six months before the first U.S. traveler can just get on a regularly scheduled flight.

Cuba, as well, will want certain regulations in place. For one, it wants its own national airline, Cubana, to have reciprocal rights on travel. And early indications are that Havana will allow between 10 and 30 daily flights to land in Cuba.

But U.S. airlines say they are ready, and American, Delta, United, JetBlue and Southwest have already publicly expressed interest in flying to Cuba.

"Interest in Cuba has reached levels not seen for a generation," Scott Laurence, senior vice president airline planning for JetBlue, told CNN. "We will review the terms of the agreement to understand how JetBlue can expand from charter service to regularly scheduled service." 

in a statement released today, ASTA CEO Zane Kerby said: "ASTA congratulates the  State Department on reaching an agreement with Cuba that brings us closer to restoring the right of all Americans to fly to Cuba, which has been denied them for far too long. ASTA member travel agents believe that Americans ought to be allowed to travel across the globe without restriction, allowing them to act as ambassadors of freedom and American values abroad. ASTA estimates at least two million additional Americans could visit Cuba by 2017 if Congress votes for a full lifting of travel restrictions before the end of this year. While U.S. law still prohibits travel to Cuba for tourist activities, we are encouraged by the continued progress made by the Obama Administration, and we strongly urge Congress to fully repeal the travel ban once and for all. Resuming commercial air travel will benefit American consumers and the ASTA travel agents who serve them. ASTA continues to support an increase in travelers' choices to Cuba and a full and complete lifting of travel restrictions."