Airlines push for U.S.-Cuba routes as Obama eases visitor restrictions


Tourists from the United States sit in an old American car in Havana on April 6, 2015.

(Yamil Lage / AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. moved closer Tuesday to restoring regular air travel to Cuba, with several airlines lobbying for access to the island nation and President Obama easing restrictions on visitors.

The changes come five days before Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to set foot on the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

United, American, Southwest, JetBlue and other carriers have submitted letters of support to the Department of Transportation over the last few days, urging the agency to award them a share of 20 daily round-trip flights to Havana, and 10 flights to nine smaller airports across Cuba. The agency plans to award the routes this summer.

City officials from Houston, for example, wrote in support of United Airlines, saying a direct route from Houston to Havana flown by that carrier would help promote commerce and culture between Cuba and the most populous city in Texas.


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“If Cuba experienced trade with Houston commensurate with its size and population, Houston anticipates that the figure for the annual Houston-Cuba trade would rapidly again exceed $100 million per year,” officials wrote.

Airline industry experts say U.S. carriers are lobbying to begin regular flights to Cuba because such routes will be in high demand, particularly from Cuban Americans around Miami and Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Obama, acting through the departments of Treasury, State and Transportation, on Tuesday eased travel restrictions by allowing individuals to travel to Cuba for “people-to-people educational” purposes. Previously, one of several restrictions on travel to Cuba required educational trips to be in groups sponsored through a U.S.-based organization and accompanied by a guide.


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Among other changes, the Obama administration is also allowing Cuban nationals living in the U.S. -- with the required visas -- to earn salaries in excess of basic living expenses. Athletes, artists and performers would be the highest-profile beneficiaries, but the new rule applies to regular folks too.

To read more about travel, tourism and the airline industry, follow Hugo Martin on Twitter at @hugomartin


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