Agreement Reached! US Airlines to Sell Tickets to Cuba in 3-6 Months

The US and Cuba have reached an agreement to resume commercial flights between the two countries. Soon we won’t be limited to charter flights.

The deal does not mean that Americans will be able to begin booking travel to Cuba immediately. But it would set in motion the safety inspections and other procedures required by the Federal Aviation Administration when such an agreement is reached. Experts say it will probably be three to six months before U.S. carriers can begin selling tickets to Cuba.

One trick to all of this was ensuring that Cubana de Aviacion could fly to the U.S., and do so without risk of having its aircraft seized to satisfy US judgments.

Since US citizens spending money in Cuba for tourism remains a violation of US law, and because for a variety of reasons I have a greater than average likelihood of attracting attention from US authorities who might choose to selectively enforce laws, I’ve been reluctant to go myself. While journalism is a permissible category, if I was selectively targeted for enforcement – while intellectually interesting – I’d hate to be in the position of litigating what constitutes journalism.

U.S. travelers who want to visit Cuba would have to qualify under one of the U.S. Treasury Department’s 12 categories for legal travel to the island. Those permitted to make such trips include U.S. residents with family members on the island, Americans traveling for religious or professional reasons and visitors who participate in licensed “people-to-people” organized tours with an educational bent.

Nonetheless, there’s a huge curiosity factor that should drive tourism demand in the short run. And in a reversal of how we usually think these things work, Cubans may be flocking to their own beaches before Americans ruin them.

The US-Cuba business travel market remains pretty limited and thus this is a place where airlines could lose lots of money. There’s the potential for catchup growth if the Cuban government allows it. However,

  • Pretty much all traffic for these flights will originate in the US. There’s almost no customer base to support these flights in Cuba.

  • Planes will be filled predominantly with leisure travel. Cuba isn’t a strong business destination.

  • Infrastructure in Cuba, from the airport to hotels, is wholly inadequate to match an aviation boom and influx of tourists. (Although scheduled flights versus international charters might at least move from terminal 2 in Havana to the more modern terminal 3.)

  • It’s an expensive airport to operate at, with costs that make Miami look like Branson, Missouri.

In fairness, it’s a somewhat strong tourist destination from Canada, although Air Canada’s daily Toronto-Havana flight from Toronto is operated only with a 97 seat Embraer E-190. Several airlines make once a week Cuba service work from a variety of Canadian cities to places like Holguin in Cuba bypassing Havana. So there is a market albeit not a huge one — new and exciting, but not the gold rush some airlines seem to be preparing for.

Cuba is interesting mostly as a forbidden fruit. In Argentina at least there’s a saying, “Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué,” or “I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why.” In Colombo, Sri Lanka earlier this year I came across these contradictory symbols on a local vehicle:

And of course at one time Guevara was featured at the W South Beach.

I just hope that when people do go, they’ll internalize what he — and the Cuban revolution — have done to impoverish the lives of people.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I think a review of the flight as well as sites to see for a travel (and miles and points log) constitutes journalism- however you can always ask the DOJ whether you qualify for the exemption …let us know Euther or how long it takes for them to get back to you

  2. Not a fan of Guevara, Gary? You know, it might not be fair to blame him for what happened with Cuba. He did have significant disagreements that lead to his leaving.

  3. I’ll go, but only if I can do it on my own terms, no propaganda tour, as was the case when I went to Russia and China. Indeed I was amazed at how my tour guide on a private tour in China three years ago went on a tirade against the Communist government (could he be certain the driver didn’t know English and the car wasn’t bugged?) as we drove through Shanghai. For now, Interjet out of Cancun seems the best option.

  4. “Pretty much all traffic for these flights will originate in the US. There’s almost no customer base to support these flights in Cuba.”
    I can readily imagine the opposite. Some are more likely to take a 1h flight to get a free citizenship than build a boat in secret. Paid by relatives. 1h flight versus 7 days on sea. Cubans will only need a VISA to leave. When will the US immigration policy towards Cuba be updated?

  5. Hmmm, either you know better than all of these airline executives what constitutes a good business decision or your fear-mongering re: Cuba knows no bounds. I’m guessing the latter.

  6. Since when did Stalin become a bad word. Stalin is the reason Gary you are writnh this blog in English and not German. Show a little gratitude

  7. @Prabuddha – see, for instance,
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/03/10/hitler-vs-stalin-who-killed-more/

    However,
    1. Stalin’s killing up through World War II of his own people was in no way necessary to stop Hitler
    2. Russians fighting the Nazis may have benefited Brits in the way you describe, but hardly likely Americans
    3. Stalin’s repression was entirely independent from and non-contributory to fighting back against Nazi invasion.
    4. It’s debatable whether Stalin killed more people than Hitler in any case.

    So, yeah, Stalin was a really bad guy. And no I don’t have gratitude towards HIM. Even if you could make a guess of gratitude towards the Russian people who suffered under him.

  8. @Gary What legitimate arguments do you make? What real evidence do you provide in support of those arguments? The cursory business points that you raised (eg, Havana’s airport costs are high) are quite clearly things that the airlines would know better than you and would take into consideration before plunging into the market and the rest are just your biased and ill-informed opinions (eg, “Cuba is interesting mostly as a forbidden fruit” or from an earlier post, something along the lines of “People who visit Cuba are only interested in seeing poor people suffering”). Who are you to say what others would or do find interesting about Cuba?! But to set the record straight, here are just a few things that make Cuba an appealing decision for tourists: (1) a rich history of music, food and drink, athletics, architecture, colonial and Cold War-era politics and more; (2) beautiful beaches that haven’t been overdeveloped like so much of Hawaii or Mexico, among other nearby tropical destinations; (3) the ability (for those of Cuban descent) to reunite with relatives or simply visit their ancestral homeland; and (4) something that would seemingly appeal to you, the chance to interact with long-isolated locals to spread the word about democracy and capitalism and support their burgeoning entrepreneurial efforts.

  9. These aren’t separate arguments, they work in tandem. Airport costs don’t matter in a high revenue environment. But when you’ve got predominantly leisure travel, and traffic that originates entirely on one end of the route, it becomes a problem.

  10. @Gary Again, how are you better able to assess the financial viability of these routes than all of these airlines? Not just the US airlines, but also all the foreign airlines (Air Canada, KLM, VA et al.) that have been flying to Cuba for decades and apparently making money despite facing the same hurdles you claim (eg, I doubt there are a lot of Cubans flying to Toronto for business or leisure) while having populations a fraction of the size of the US, being located much farther from Cuba than the US and not having the pent-up demand of the US market due to the embargo?

  11. @MFK – this isn’t about access to better data, if you’re going to argue with me then tell me what is wrong with my argument. Flights from New York, Miami, Tampa and Los Angeles at least to Havana are certainly viable, though in some limited number and offered by some limited number of airlines.

    Your presumption that anything airlines do must make sense is odd considering that the industry in its first 100 years did not earn a net profit.

  12. I have told you several times what’s wrong with your arguments: they’re not arguments; they’re opinions hiding whatever agenda you have against Americans traveling to Cuba. “Airlines planning to waste US taxpayer subsidies,” “You might be subject to a secret Justice Dept investigation so don’t go to Cuba cause the Feds might railroad you,” “You’re a bad person for going to Cuba to gawk at the underprivileged populace” – that’s what your posts amount to. But, hey, it’s your blog; write whatever you want. I stopped reading after your hidden agenda became apparent. I only came back because I follow Boarding Area on Twitter, saw your headline and couldn’t resist seeing what new scare tactics you were using. Goodbye.

  13. No straw men; these are things you’ve actually “argued.” To quote, “Many US tourists want to go before Cuba ‘changes’ which is to say they want to see the poverty before the Cuban people benefit from development” and “Cuba is interesting mostly as a forbidden fruit” – those two statements are patently just your opinion and wrong; as I stated previously, there are many reasons why people would want to visit, not to see poverty or because they haven’t been allowed to go for decades. “Why I’m Not Traveling to Cuba… And You Should Consider This Before Going There, Too” is the headline of another post in which you put forth some vague hypotheticals about how you and, based on the title, other Americans could find themselves in serious hot water by traveling to Cuba without (apparently) a unanimous Supreme Court decision that their trip falls within legal boundaries. And most recently, ““Nearly every big U.S. airline plans to apply for Cuba flights” because, presumably, they want to light money on fire.” The last part of that sentence is, again, simply your opinion, based on a few (in my opinion, thin) arguments that stem mostly from your (in my opinion, misguided) belief that only a few Americans are interested in visiting Cuba and only for the wrong reasons and that their interest will wane quickly after the “forbidden fruit” becomes readily obtainable.

    Based on things you have stated in your posts and comments, it seems apparent to me that you disapprove of the regime’s treatment of its people. That is a legitimate issue that I and others share, but while I take a different tack, I fully understand why some would balk at putting their tourist dollars in its pockets. There was a pretty healthy discussion within the blogosphere about this concern when Myanmar opened up for travel and I found much of it enjoyable and enlightening. Several bloggers and readers provided valuable tips to try to put more money in the hands of the people rather than in the pockets of a corrupt regime, which I found very useful during my visit. I like to think that the collective efforts of those who traveled there played a small part in the recent progress we have seen in that country, and I believe the same could happen in Cuba, but reasonable minds can differ on that point. But only if the discussion is an honest one.

  14. “Many US tourists want to go before Cuba ‘changes’ which is to say they want to see the poverty before the Cuban people benefit from development” is not at all wrong. It’s something many travel agents are hearing from clients, that many travel writers are suggesting, it’s a very common argument to go now and go quickly.

  15. No, it is wrong. The first part (go now before it changes) is what travel agents are hearing and travel writers are suggesting. The second part (to see poverty) is simply your spin on the former. I and many others want to go now not to see poverty, but to see the country before Havana ends up with a Starbucks on every corner across from a McDonald’s and sunburned package tourists cover every bit of sand on the beach and instead of local bands playing Cuban jazz it’s Margaritaville in every bar during the day and the Macarena every night. I saw it happen to Los Cabos in the span of about 20 years; it could happen in Cuba too. To even suggest that people want to go there to see poverty is nonsense and evidence of whatever agenda you’re trying to push.

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