Skies are open for first scheduled flights between U.S. and Cuba

f0067203HAVANA, August 31th As a JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara glides skyward to a water canon salute Wednesday, it will become the first regularly scheduled flight between the United States and Cuba since 1961.

Silver Airways is preparing to launch a much smaller commercial service to Santa Clara from Fort Lauderdale Thursday with approximately 30 passengers, and next week American Airlines will offer its inaugural scheduled 160-seat flight to Cuba from Miami, heart of Cuban exile.

American Airlines also has become the first U.S. airline to get a business license for its operations in Cuba, which will include opening a city ticket office. An agreement signed with the Chamber of Commerce of Cuba last week will allow American to legally make purchases and open a commercial bank account on the island. The airline is currently negotiating a lease for a ticket office and training center in Havana’s Miramar section.

Even though the embargo remains in place, new rules by the Obama administration since the rapprochement with Cuba began in December 2014 allow American companies to have a physical presence in Cuba.

Eduardo Rodríguez, Cuba’s transportation vice minister

“The revival of regular direct flights is a positive step and a contribution to the process of improving relations between the two countries,” Cuban Transportation Vice Minister Eduardo Rodríguez told reporters in Havana Monday.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will be aboard JetBlue’s historic flight to Santa Clara and plans to meet with both the Cuban transportation minister and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez while in Cuba.

JetBlue, which will be using a 150-seat aircraft for the Santa Clara flights, plans to begin regularly scheduled service to the Cuban cities of Camagüey and Holguín in November.

So far Silver Airways has received Cuban government approval to operate scheduled service from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Camagüey, Cienfuegos, and Holguín. It is still awaiting approval for flights it wants to operate from Fort Lauderdale to Santiago de Cuba, Cayo Coco, Varadero, Cayo Largo, and Manzanillo by year’s end.

Frontier, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines also have won DOT approval for routes outside Havana but have not yet announced when they will begin service.f0067209

American, which will fly its first scheduled flights from Miami International Airport to the Cuban cities of Cienfuegos and Holguín on Sept. 7, also is in the process of getting the necessary permits for its Cuba country manager, Galo Beltran, to be based on the island.

Beltran is a long-time AA executive but the airline will employ some 200 contracted Cuban employees at the five Cuban airports it’s currently authorized to serve. In coming days it will launch twice daily service from Miami to Santa Clara and Varadero, and daily service to Camagüey.

For its first flight to Cuba — the Cienfuegos flight gets the honors because it takes off a little before American’s flight to Holguín — there will be a Cuban trio and pastelitos for the passengers.

“Opening up a new station is always challenging. Cuba is especially unique because we are starting service to five stations over the course of five days,” Beltran said in a Q&A in an AA employee newsletter.

Galo Beltran, AA Cuba country manager

Although the United States and Cuba reached an agreement on resumption of scheduled air service between the two countries in February, the United States still doesn’t permit Americans to engage in tourism on the island. U.S. visitors to Cuba must fall into 12 categories of authorized travel.

“The irony is that Cuba is the only country in the world where Americans can’t freely travel and that needs to be sorted out,” said Carlos Gutierrez, U.S. commerce secretary under George W. Bush and now an advocate for more engagement with Cuba.

The resumption of regular air service is significant “but it’s just one step forward in a long process,” said Gutierrez who is now chairman of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm. “Every step forward is one more step in making [rapprochement] irreversible. Even today it seems irreversible.”

American plans to use a 160-seat Boeing 737 for its service to Holguín and Camagüey and a 128-passenger Airbus A319 on its routes to Santa Clara, Varadero and Cienfuegos.

American also said this week it is revising a previously announced baggage policy for Cuba flights to allow passengers to take more luggage with them.

Passengers can take up to five pieces of luggage or boxes, but if they exceed 50 pounds and have linear dimensions that measure more than 62 inches, overweight and oversize charges will apply in addition to a $25 fee for the first bag, $40 for the second, $150 for the third and $200 for both the fourth and fifth bags.

The overweight and oversize limits for each bag are 100 pounds and 126 inches, meaning passengers can take up to 500 pounds of luggage if they’re willing to pay the fees and excess charges. The first and second bags are free for passengers with elite status or who are traveling in business or first class.

However, from Nov. 19 to Jan. 6, 2017, excess, oversize and overweight luggage and boxes will not be accepted on AA Cuba flights, said Martha Pantin, an American spokeswoman.

A dozen U.S. airlines also have applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation to fly the 20 daily Havana routes up for grabs. DOT has given preliminary approval to eight airlines and is expected to give its final approval later this year. Then the airlines must get authorization to land in Havana from the Cuban government.

“Today we take another important step toward delivering on President Obama’s promise to reengage Cuba,” Foxx said in July when DOT announced its tentative approvals for the Havana routes. “Restoring regular air service holds tremendous potential to reunite Cuban American families and foster education and opportunities for American businesses of all sizes.”

Ground crew hold U.S. and Cuban flags near a recently landed JetBlue aeroplane, the first commercial scheduled flight between the United States and Cuba in more than 50 years, at the Abel Santamaria International Airport in Santa Clara, Cuba, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Ground crew hold U.S. and Cuban flags near a recently landed JetBlue aeroplane, the first commercial scheduled flight between the United States and Cuba in more than 50 years, at the Abel Santamaria International Airport in Santa Clara, Cuba, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini