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Flights to Cuba from 10 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, get tentative OK

Flights to Cuba from 10 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, get tentative OK
A girl celebrating her quinceañera -- her 15th birthday -- poses in front of the Havana Cathedral in March. (Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press)

Scheduled commercial airline service to Havana from 10 U.S. cities — including Los Angeles — won tentative government approval Thursday, advancing President Obama's effort to normalize relations with Cuba.

Eight U.S. airlines are expected to begin round-trip service as early as this fall between the United States and the Cuban capital, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. It has been more than 50 years since the last scheduled air service from the U.S. to the island nation.

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The U.S. cities are: Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Houston; Los Angeles; Newark, N.J.; New York; and four in Florida — Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa. Of the 20 daily nonstop flights allowed to Havana, 14 will be from Florida, home to the U.S.'s largest population of Cuban Americans.

The airlines are Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United.

Foxx said the decision won't be final until later this summer after a 30-day public comment period. Last month, the Transportation Department announced the approval of six U.S. airlines to begin service as early as this fall to other Cuban cities. That plan, if ultimately approved, would require that the airlines begin service within 90 days of the issue date of a final order.

A year and a half ago, Obama announced with Cuban President Raul Castro that it was time for the longtime adversaries to "begin a new journey." Washington has since reopened the U.S. Embassy in Havana and taken other steps to bolster ties.

Conservatives in Congress have been unwilling to lift the trade embargo of Cuba, which includes a travel ban. That means most Americans still cannot legally visit Cuba. But the administration has eased rules to the point where travelers are now free to design their own "people-to-people" cultural exchange tours with little oversight.

Airlines must still record — and retain for five years — the official reasons passengers give for traveling to Cuba, so reservation systems have been revamped to let passengers select one of the 12 permitted categories. They include family visits, official business and educational or religious activities.

U.S. citizens' interest in visiting Cuba has swelled since relations between the two nations started to thaw in December 2014. Nearly 160,000 U.S. leisure travelers flew to Cuba last year, along with hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans visiting family.

Currently, the first commercial flight to Cuba is set to be flown by Silver Airways on Sept. 1 from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara. Now that the Havana routes have been announced, one of the other airlines might try to start flying even sooner if final U.S. approval comes quickly and airline operations are ready.

U.S. carriers have been working quietly for months to prepare for Cuban flights. Several airlines already serve the island nation with charter service; American has been flying to Cuba since 1991, the longest of any airline. Last year, American flew 1,084 such charter flights, followed by JetBlue with 221.

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