Back in December the US and Cuba agreed to allow scheduled commercial air service between the two countries. 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.
At the end of the week the US Department of Transportation handed out route awards to US airlines to fly to Cuba — for every Cuban destination requested except for Havana. There are more traffic rights available than there are requests to fly for Cuba’s secondary destinations.
In contrast, Havana will permit 20 US flights a day but American airlines have asked for about 60. Those applications remain under review.
With new route authorities in hand, US airlines can begin to seek permission from Cuba for the flights and put their ground operations in place.
The largest contingent of flights will belong to American Airlines. Beginning in September American plans to serve Camaguey, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Santa Clara and Varadero.
American Will Introduce Cuba Awards
American AAdvantage program terms specifically disallow earning or redemption on Cuba flights.
Flights to/from Cuba are not eligible for mileage accrual…
Flights to/from Cuba are not eligible for mileage redemption.
I reached out to American to ask whether they were planning to update these terms with the airline poised to introduce scheduled service between the US and Cuba.
American confirmed these terms will be updated, the AAdvantage program will allow members to earn and redeem miles on Cuba flights.
What Will Be the Best Mileage Deal to Cuba?
The flights are about the distance of DC – New York, and not much farther than Dallas – Austin. These are short hops. But they’re likely to be expensive in miles when booking through American.
Cuba does not yet appear in any of American’s award regions since the AAdvantage program doesn’t currently permit redemption to or from the country. It will presumably be added to the Caribbean, which includes Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands as well as the Bahamas (Nassau is even slightly closer to Miami than Havana).
That’s unfortunate because discounted 7500 mile one-way economy awards are valid only within the 48 contiguous United States and between those states and Canada.
Instead we can expect US – Cuba saver awards to be 12,500 miles in economy (off-season dates), 15,000 miles in economy (most dates), and 25,000 miles in premium cabin each way.
As a result British Airways redemptions for economy travel between the US and Cuba will be a much better value, with one-ways costing 7500 in economy. Assuming American does the forward cabin as business class, rather than first class, British Airways premium awards will be 15,000 Avios. If American calls it first class it will cost 30,000 one-way up front. (Connecting flights within the US will be additional miles.)
How Successful Will These Flights Be?
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 last 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.