Last updated: 09:03 PM ET, Tue December 15 2015

US, Cuba Near Agreement On Commercial Flights

Airlines & Airports | American Airlines | Rich Thomaselli | December 15, 2015

US, Cuba Near Agreement On Commercial Flights

Photo by David Cogswell

Nearly a year to the day after the Obama Administration announced it would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after 52 years, the two countries are on the verge of an agreement to resume commercial flights, the Associated Press reported.

“Our two countries have engaged in a historic dialogue on a wide range of issues,” Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who heads the U.S. embassy in Havana, told reporters in a conference call. “We have discussed concrete objectives on civil aviation, direct transportation of mail, environment, regulatory changes and counter-narcotics. And we have either reached understandings on those topics or continue to narrow our differences in ways that suggest we could soon conclude such understandings.”

The talks are ongoing, but this is the first concrete indication that commercial flights appear to be imminent. At the moment, American travelers to Cuba and Cubans to the U.S. can do so only on special charters.

In fact, the first charter flight from Los Angeles to Havana took off on Saturday on American Airlines. Howard Kass, vice president for regulatory affairs at American, told the Miami Herald last month that the carrier – which already flies 22 charter flights a week to Cuba – is ready to resume commercial service.

“We anticipate operating to Cuba as soon as the two governments work everything out. We’re ready to go now,” he said. “We look forward to going, and we think it will be a great benefit for passengers. Not just in Miami, but throughout the United States. Today, when we take somebody to Cuba, the charter process is a separate one. We can’t ticket them all the way through. Their bag check isn’t seamless. So once different points in Cuba become part of the American network, a passenger in Minneapolis will book a ticket to Havana just as easily as that same passenger in Minneapolis books a ticket to other points in the Caribbean on American.”

American, with a major hub in Miami, seems best poised among the major commercial airlines to quickly begin flights to Cuba. However, virtually every big U.S. carrier, including United, Southwest and JetBlue, has expressed interest in flying into Havana.

U.S. and Cuban officials could make a formal announcement before year’s end. DeLaurentis said authorized American travel to the island on charter flights is up 50 percent this year over 2014, buoyed by significant expansion in cultural and educational programs and, of course, the administration’s decision to restore relations.

Last week, the U.S. and Cuba jointly announced a tentative deal to resume direct mail service between the two countries, which hasn’t been allowed since 1963. Each country will launch a pilot program to test direct service but gave no indication how quickly that can happen.

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