The United States and Cuba have taken another step toward normalizing relations by signing an agreement to resume scheduled air services between the two countries for the first time in more than half a century.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Charles Rivkin traveled to Havana on Tuesday to sign the agreement, which authorizes up to 110 round trips a day to Cuba’s 10 international airports.
Since President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba in December 2014, the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba has surged by more than 50%. But without commercial service, travelers have had to rely on charter flights.
The resumption of scheduled services “is expected to set off a scramble among U.S. carriers to win route rights to serve Havana,” the Wall Street Journal said.
American Airlines, which currently offers 24 weekly charter flights from Miami, Los Angeles, and Tampa, Fla., has indicated it will seek routes out of Miami and said it is exploring options at its other hubs, including Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
The Department of Transportation said U.S. carriers must make their applications by March 2, with final comments and answers due March 21. The government expects to award routes and carriers could begin selling tickets in the fall.
JetBlue said Tuesday it was also interested in bidding for scheduled flights. The airline operates charter flights to Havana from New York, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Tampa, and flies from Tampa to Santa Clara, Cuba.
“Once Cuba’s airport and tourism infrastructure improves and relations continue to normalize, the nation is expected to take off as a major new travel destination among Americans. And, U.S. airlines want to be part of that,” the WSJ said.
TravelPulse said the “real windfall” for airlines will come after Congress rescinds the ban on regular tourism to Cuba. “Everything that the airlines do now is building toward being in the best position possible if and when that finally happens,” it said.