Eight U.S. Airlines Win Tentative Approval to Fly to Havana


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José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba’s capital. American tourism to Cuba is still technically prohibited, but the federal government in March relaxed some travel restrictions.

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Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A fiercely contested battle among United States airlines to be the first to schedule flights to Havana, Cuba’s capital, in more than 50 years is coming to a close.

Eight carriers — most with flights departing from the Miami and New York metropolitan areas — received tentative approval from the Transportation Department on Thursday to operate direct flights to José Martí International Airport in Havana. Twelve airlines had submitted requests for a combination of 60 flights a day, but only 20 daily routes were available under an arrangement between the governments.

The decision was made a year after the United States and Cuba re-established diplomatic relations. The United States Department of Transportation announced last month that it had approved routes to nine other Cuban cities, but it delayed authorizing the Havana routes because of competition among the major airlines.

The department awarded the routes to serve markets with substantial Cuban-American populations and crucial aviation hub cities.

Among the winners was American Airlines, which will operate five direct flights to Havana, four flights from Miami and one from Charlotte, N.C. American, which was approved for more flights than any other airline, had operated charter flights to Cuba for 25 years.

“American has a rich history in the Cuban market, and we are excited to continue to be the leader in providing air service between the United States and Cuba,” Andrew Nocella, American’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement.

Alaska Airlines is the only carrier that will fly to Havana directly from the West Coast. It will operate a once-daily flight from Los Angeles.

While American tourism to Cuba is still technically prohibited, the federal government in March relaxed travel restrictions to allow “people to people” educational trips without special permission from the government. Those trips must fall under one of 12 categories, like visiting family members or for humanitarian projects.

About 3.5 million people worldwide visited Cuba last year, according to state news media, and the number is expected to increase sharply as scheduled flights from the United States resume for the first time in 50 years. At the same time, Cuba’s private and state businesses are straining to accommodate the influx of travelers.

“Where are all of these people going to stay?” said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “Cuba won’t have the hotel rooms for these people. The interest may be there, but the ability to provide them with rooms won’t be.”

Six direct flights will be offered from Miami each day, and three flights from the New York metropolitan area. Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways will each offer a daily flight from Kennedy International Airport, and United won a route from Newark Liberty International Airport.

Other flights originate from Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Fla., and Atlanta and Houston. Spirit Airlines and Southwest Airlines also won routes.

Applications from four small airlines, Silver Airways, Dynamic International Airways, Eastern Air Lines and Sun Country Airlines, were not approved.

“There will be comments and there will be appeals,” Mr. Kavulich said. “It’s likely there will be adjustments to the routes.”

The airlines and other stakeholders have until July 22 to submit formal objections to the routes, and the Transportation Department plans to complete its decisions this summer. The first flights are expected to take off as early as September.

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