After more than half a century, regular commercial flights between the United States and Cuba, which will resume at the end of the month, will operate in accordance with international security norms, as announced by senior aviation officials this Thursday, August 26, in Havana.
The inaugural flight, operated by U.S. airline JetBlue, between Fort Lauderdale (Florida) and Santa Clara, will depart on Wednesday, August 31. As such regular direct flights between the two countries, which were suspended in 1961, will formally resume.
“This is a positive step and contributes to the process of improving relations between Cuba and the United States,” Cuban Deputy Minister for Development at the Ministry of Transport, Eduardo Rodríguez Dávila, stated during a press conference.
Dávila noted that Cuba has internationally recognized strengths in terms of aviation safety and security.
He added that security guarantees not only form part of commitments to U.S. entities, but are a part of daily practice with the over 110 airlines that operate on the island and the over 600 flights that enter Cuban airspace every day.
He assured that recent concerns raised in the U.S. Congress regarding alleged Cuban airport security and aviation shortcomings lacked any foundation.
In this regard, he noted that Cuba meets all international standards and is a founding member of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Despite the blockade, airport infrastructure has been created and visitors are received within a secure environment, with extensive potential for further development.
Dávila added that the facilities approved to receive direct flights from the United States, have been inspected by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, with satisfactory results.
In terms of infrastructure, he noted that an expansion and modernization program exists, which goes beyond the reestablishment of direct flights with the U.S. The program is a natural process stemming from the challenges of catering to the increase in international flights to the island in recent years, and the development of the island.
A RECIPROCAL AGREEMENT
The start of JetBlue operations to Santa Clara forms part of the implementation process of the Memorandum of Understanding between Cuba and the United States on the reestablishment of regular flights, signed in February, 2016.
The document establishes the possibility of operating up to 110 daily flights between the two countries, 20 to the Cuban capital and 10 to each of the nine international airports located across the rest of the island.
The first routes approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation were precisely those destined for points other than Havana.
As such, American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines, received licenses to operate flights from six U.S. cities (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia) to nine destinations on the island: Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.
The 20 possible routes to the Cuban capital, to which 50% of international visitors arrive, are in the final approval stage.
Flights operated by American Airlines and Silver Airways are scheduled to commence in September. The remaining airlines will begin operations in the winter season, when more clarity on services to Havana is expected.
The Cuban Deputy Minister clarified that the reestablishment of regular commercial flights does not equate to an automatic increase in the number of people traveling between the U.S. and Cuba.
The travel restrictions on U.S. citizens wishing to visit the island remain in place.
However, he noted that the increase in quality standards and the possibility of lower prices are encouraging factors for prospective travelers.
Until now, a daily average of 17 charter flights from the United States arrive in Cuba.
Rodríguez Dávila noted that these flights will continue to operate and recognized the important contribution that charter companies have played as the main link between the two countries.
He also noted that airlines operating charter flights will have to adjust to the greater competition with commercial lines.
The Memorandum of Understanding establishes reciprocal treatment, such that Cuban airlines may also seek to establish direct commercial flights to the U.S.
According to the Deputy Minister, Cubana de Aviación is currently in the process of seeking licenses to fly to the U.S. “A formal request has yet to be presented, but the established procedure is being followed.”
However, the current blockade laws pose serious risks to Cuban entities and their assets once located on U.S. soil.
WHAT WILL THE NEW SERVICE ENTAIL?
Alfredo Cordero Puig, president of the Cuban Civil Aviation Institute (IACC), recalled that the negotiation process to arrive at the Memorandum of Understanding began shortly after the announcements of December 17, 2014, and entailed several technical meetings between specialists.
In recent months, he said, Cuban authorities have exchanged with the approved airlines to explain all the necessary requirements to begin operations. “We have worked together to ensure that everything is done as quickly and smoothly as possible.”
Rosa Elena Nieves Ferrer, deputy director of the Cuban Aviation Corporation (CACSA), explained that airports are ready for the start of operations, which coincides with the peak season for international tourist arrivals.
“The business system together with the IACC has worked to create the necessary conditions,” she said after noting that Cuban enterprises such as ECASA, Cubacatering and other sector leaders, are currently recruiting further staff.
Maida Molina Martínez, an IACC official, confirmed that U.S. airlines have also brought equipment and trained Cuban personnel to meet their standards.
She noted that the conditions are being created to make use of current services infrastructure, to facilitate reservations from anywhere in the country.
The U.S. airlines will be represented on the island directly or through specialized companies dedicated to providing these services.
Regarding payments and access to tickets for Cuban citizens, she explained that this would operate in the same way as with other foreign airlines on the island.
Cuban officials emphasized that flight prices are fixed by the airlines themselves, according to market dynamics.
However, they noted that the cost of tickets in general should be lower than those of charter flights, given the greater stability in service and the improved conditions for commercial operators at airports worldwide.