HAVANA TIMES — Several US airlines will begin offering direct commercial flights between the US and Cuba starting this fall, after more than half a century without service, announced the Obama administration on Friday.
The agreement between the two countries, which will be formally signed on February 16 at the National Hotel in Havana, allows for up to 20 daily direct flights from the US to Havana and another ten to other Cuban international airports, said Thomas Engle, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Transport in a conference call.
For the time being, Cuban airlines will still not be able fly to the United States, as they must have both authorization from the Department of Transport and get the green light from the Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), attached to the Department of Treasury and the Bureau of Industry and Security, Department of Commerce.
“I do not expect there to Cuban airlines offering services to the United States in the near future,” Engle said.
Starting next Tuesday, US airlines will have 15 days to submit their applications for licenses to fly to Cuba and indicate which cities want to fly to. The Department of Transport will then announce in the coming months which US airlines can fly to the island and with what frequency.
This will allow the airlines “sufficient time to handle all regulatory issues and start selling tickets later this year, in the fall,” added the Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs, Brandon Belford. They had previously announced the resumption of flights this year, but had not specified a date.
“Unleashing the Power of US travelers and their frequent flyer miles will take us one step closer to eliminating the archaic restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake. The senator introduced in January 2015, a bill to lift all restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba, so that they can travel freely as tourists on the island.
For many years, and until the commercial flights resume, US citizens authorized to travel to Cuba have had to use charter services from a US carrier or go through third countries.
Currently some airlines -American Airlines, Delta, Sky King and JetBlue- operate direct charter flights to Cuba, but they can only transport a limited number of persons authorized by Washington.
Charter flights between the US and Cuba will continue once the direct commercial services are resumed, although the added competition and frequency could bring down the exorbitant prices for the short flight.
At present there are ten charter flights daily to Cuba. The passengers are Cuban-Americans who have relatives in Cuba and those other US citizens who have authorization to travel to the island under one of the allowed categories.
Cuban-Americans can travel to Cuba to see their relatives without restrictions since 2009. In 2011 trips were extended to a limited number of other US citizens as family members, journalists, government officials, religious and humanitarian workers.
According to the information available at this time, the agreement to re-establish direct commercial flights does not change these categories, thus US citizens allowed by their government to travel to the island will remain limited.
Cuba and the United States officially resumed bilateral relations in July 2015.