The Obama administration will allow U.S. air carriers to start regular scheduled commercial flights to and from Cuba as early as this fall for the first time in more than 50 years, U.S. officials said Friday.
Air travel could resume with up to 20 daily scheduled round-trip flights to Havana, and 10 flights to nine other airports around the island nation.
The move is the latest by a White House determined to restore normal ties with the long-shunned communist government, and to expand American engagement with the Cuban people and their economy.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will sign the bilateral arrangement with his Cuban counterpart Tuesday in Havana to reestablish regular commercial air travel, and to start government screening of eligible air carriers.
The Transportation Department will solicit applications from airlines to operate the service. U.S. officials expect the opportunity to kick off a bidding war for the new routes.
Airlines could begin selling tickets this fall, probably around October, administration officials said. American passengers will still have to apply for Cuban visas to make the trip.
Charter flights to Cuba, which now fly about 10 or 15 times a day, will continue. Cuban airlines are not expected to begin reciprocal service to U.S. airports in the near future, officials said.
Diplomats agreed to restore commercial air service in December, but it's taken this long to assess Cuban air operations, security procedures and other challenges.
U.S. law still bars tourists from visiting Cuba, but the commercial flights will expand opportunities for other visitors, such as students and business executives.
It also is intended to strengthen the people-to-people ties that President Obama hopes will make the detente last after he leaves the White House next year.
Washington and Havana restored diplomatic relations in July, a process that began with behind-the-scenes talks between personal emissaries of the White House, the government of Raul Castro and the Vatican.
Obama has relaxed travel and trade restrictions under his direct authority, but many remain in place and can only be changed by Congress.
The White House has urged Congress to drop its trade embargo, which was passed in 1963 and remains a source of tension with Havana.
Many political conservatives and Cuban Americans oppose what they see as a rush to drop sanctions. The Castro government still draws international criticism, including from the White House, for its jailing of political dissidents and its human rights abuses.
Aides to Obama say he is convinced that greater U.S. engagement with Cuba and its economy will pressure its leaders to accept reforms.
The restoration of commercial flights promotes travel, commerce and the free flow of information, said James Williams, president of the nonpartisan advocacy group Engage Cuba, a supporter of the new Obama policy.
"Now is the time for Washington to listen to the majority of Americans and Cuban people, and fully end the outdated embargo," he said.