Last updated: 10:25 AM ET, Sun December 27 2015

US Airlines Are Quietly Prepping For Cuba

Airlines & Airports | Rich Thomaselli | December 27, 2015

US Airlines Are Quietly Prepping For Cuba

Photo by Goats on the Road

U.S. airlines are quietly working behind the scenes to prepare for commercial travel to Cuba once the half century-long travel embargo to the island nation is lifted.

A big hurdle was cleared last week, when the U.S State Department announced it had reached an agreement with Cuba to resume commercial air travel between the two countries.

"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.

The next major hurdle is for Congress to lift the embargo that still technically bars travel to Cuba for standard tourism. But the major airlines believe that’s just a formality waiting to happen in an election year, and have been prepping for such an announcement.

American Airlines has already said it will formally apply to the government for a service contract that authorizes commercial flights to Cuba, and some observers believe the carrier’s recent moves of expanding flights to other Caribbean destinations is a precursor to starting flights to Cuba.

American is adding flights from Dallas to Grand Cayman and Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic; Los Angeles to  Montego Bay, Jamaica; and Charlotte to Curacao and Puerto Plata, also in the Dominican Republic.

Charlotte will be a key new hub for American. It was a hub for US Airways but after the merger of the two airlines, and after US Airways ceased flying under that name in October, Charlotte is now American’s second-biggest hub — with 90 percent market share — behind its home base in Dallas.

JetBlue has also announced new non-stop daily flight service between Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) and Rafael Hernandez Airport (BQN) in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico beginning May 5, 2016.  Fort Lauderdale is one of JetBlue’s two busiest hubs. The carrier currently operates nearly 145 daily flights from FLL to the Caribbean and Latin America.

The moves are important for both American and JetBlue. As they both look to pick U.S. cities that will launch flights to Cuba, its Caribbean and Latin American destinations could also serve as jumping off points.

It will be interesting to see if low-budget carrier Spirit — also based in Florida — joins American, Delta, United, JetBlue and Southwest, who have already expressed considerable interest in flying to Cuba.

“We’re interested in flying to Cuba when the time is right, and it’s right for Spirit’s business model," spokesman Paul Berry told USA Today. "Like with any destination we choose to fly, we will want to be able to offer the lowest fares to and from Cuba and still be profitable.  It’s still too early to know what the costs of flying to Cuba will be, and what infrastructure will be in place.  When we see the finalized agreement, we will be better able to determine how — and when — we want to fit Cuba into our plans."

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