Icelandair eyes operating 31 return services a week to Cuba this summer under wet-lease arrangements
In a June 3 letter to the US Department of Transportation (DOT), Icelandair asks for permission to wet-lease the 197-seat aircraft on a long-term basis to World Atlantic Airlines to operate flights between July 15 and October 31, 2022.
While the letter says the aircraft will “primarily” fly the US-Cuba country pair, they want wriggle room to fly the plane to other unspecified Caribbean countries. With a tight deadline, Icelandair also asks the DOT to waive the usual 45-day advance notification requirement.
Readers will likely know Reykjavík-based Icelandair. They serve around a dozen US airports. But World Atlantic Airlines is a different matter.
The Miami-based charter operator was formerly known as Caribbean Sun Airlines and operates a tight fleet of McDonnell Douglas MD-83 planes. What seems to be getting up the noses of the US airline industry is Icelandair’s incursion onto their turf, namely the US – Cuba routes.
Icelandair’s history of gaining backdoor access to Cuba
It’s not the first time Icelandair has done this. They’ve spent much of the last 12 months annoying their US rivals with DOT applications to fly wet-lease charter flights between the US and Cuba.
As recently as last year, World Atlantic Airlines was crying foul over an Icelandair’s proposal to fly seasonal charter services (February – May 2022) to Cuba out of three US ports on behalf of Anmart Air.
But the DOT gave Icelandair the green light anyway. Now, perhaps World Atlantic Airlines thinks if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.
As Icelandair points out in its June 3 letter, the proposed service is in line with the bilateral US – Cuba air service agreement and “with comity and reciprocity between the Governments of Cuba and Iceland.”
But North Carolina-based Swift Air calls the application “Icelandair’s latest attempt to establish a permanent, year-round seventh-freedom operating base in the United States so it can fly between the US and a third non-open skies country. The Application does not describe the wet-lease terms at all and even leaves open which markets World Atlantic and Icelandair propose to serve.”
Air Line Pilots Association comes out swinging against Icelandair
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has told the DOT that Icelandair’s proposed operations would “do direct and substantial harm to US operators in the market.”
ALPA argues the US-Cuba market is not an open skies market, and US carrier operations remain severely constrained by the OFAC restrictions, which strictly limit the categories of US passengers that are allowed to travel to Cuba.
Further, ALPA says Icelandair’s proposed seventh freedom passenger operation (more than four daily flights) exceeds its level of Iceland-US flights and constitutes “undue reliance” on seventh freedom traffic.
“This represents an exponential increase in Icelandair’s seventh freedom passenger operations,” says ALPA’s submission to the DOT. “Taken on an annual basis, it exceeds Icelandair’s third and fourth freedom services between the US and Iceland. As such, denial is compelled under the established doctrine of undue reliance.”
ALPA’s letter sounds nice and lawyerly. But Icelandair weathered similar strident objections last year and got its proposals past the DOT. On that basis, they are probably confident of a repeat summer in Cuba season.
With flights slated to start from mid-July, Icelandair and World Atlantic Airlines must be counting on a DOT decision soon.