A deluge of requests from US carriers to serve Cuba leaves the US transportation department with the difficult task of deciding which airlines secure highly coveted rights to fly to Havana.
Twelve US passenger carriers filed on 2 March to operate an average of more than 77 daily flights to Cuba, following the signing of an agreement in February to reinstate scheduled air service between the two countries.
Of the more than 77 daily flights requested by the airlines, more than 50 will operate to Havana. The US-Cuba air services agreement, however, allows for only 20 daily flights to the Cuban capital.
American Airlines, the carrier that is seeking the most flights, has requested for at least 12 daily flights to Havana. Of these, it wants to operate 10 daily frequencies to the city from Miami.
Indeed, Miami-Havana has turned out to be the most sought-after route, with four airlines applying: American, Delta Air Lines, Eastern Airlines and Frontier Airlines. Altogether, the four carriers want to fly 16 times daily between the two cities.
American says in its Department of Transportation (DOT) filing that “extensive scheduled service from Miami” is required to meet an expected surge in demand for travel. The number of charter flights operated by the Oneworld carrier on the route in January and February grew 56% from the same period in 2015, it says.
More than 83% of the US charter flights to Havana in 2015 originated from Miami, it adds. American is the largest US operator of charter service to the Caribbean island nation.
The carrier believes that its 10 desired frequencies on the route “will eventually be less than demand next year likely justifies”, says the airline in its filing.
“Viewed in this light, American’s requested frequencies from MIA are modest and reasonable,” it adds.
The airline’s vice-president of regulatory affairs Howard Kass says it is important for the airline to have the “right level of service” at Miami to cater to its customers.
“We are really excited about the opportunities that we have today, after serving Cuba for 25 years through charter flights,” he tells Flightglobal.
Reflecting the demand for flights from Miami, the state of Florida is the key focus of US carriers’ plans to serve Cuba.
This is no surprise given the number of Cubans that have migrated to Florida. Data from Washington DC-based think tank Migration Policy Institute (MPI) shows that about 77% of Cuban immigrants in the USA have settled in Florida.
Within Florida, four counties account for about 68% of the total Cuban immigrant population in the country, says MPI. These are Miami-Dade County, Broward County, Hillsborough County and Palm Beach County.
Miami-Dade County alone - where Miami International airport is based - is home to about 642,200 Cuban immigrants, or more than half of the estimated 1.13 million Cuban immigrants in the USA.
Fort Lauderdale - viewed as the alternative airport to Miami - resides in Broward County which is home to 46,000 Cuban immigrants.
The smaller airport is the second most popular origin point among the applications filed by US airlines. Four carriers - JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Silver Airways and Spirit Airlines - want to fly to Havana from Fort Lauderdale, requesting for a total of 13 daily flights.
Both Spirit and Silver are based at Fort Lauderdale airport, which is also a focus city for both JetBlue and Southwest.
Among the four carriers, only JetBlue has experience in operating charter service to Cuba. The airline now flies six-times weekly from Fort Lauderdale, New York and Tampa to Havana and Santa Clara.
With its request for 15 daily flights to Cuba, JetBlue is the carrier with the second biggest flight application after American. It wants to serve four Cuban destinations from Fort Lauderdale and operate to Havana from two other Florida points: Orlando and Tampa. The airline is also seeking to serve Cuba from three other points on the US east coast: Boston, Newark and New York John F Kennedy.
JetBlue points out that Fort Lauderdale and New York - both focus cities in its network - place it in a good position to provide scheduled service.
“Unlike other US airlines that have hubs in cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte or Houston, with limited natural demand for US-Cuba service, JetBlue’s focus cities are, in fact, already the largest markets for legally-permitted US-Cuba charter air service,” says the airline in its DOT filing.
JetBlue is not the only airline hoping that its presence in Florida will help it land the rights to serve Cuba on a scheduled basis.
Dallas-based Southwest’s entire Cuba route proposal originates in Florida. A Southwest spokesman tells Flightglobal that the airline’s focus on Florida has resulted in some disappointment expressed by airport authorities in its other focus cities, but says the carrier is being pragmatic as it banks on its strong intra-state network in the Sunshine State.
“We offer great network connectivity through Florida to Cuba on these proposed routes,” he says. “With the limited number of opportunities, these are among our top priorities.”
Fort Lauderdale-based Saab 340B operator Silver believes it can succeed in Cuba the same way it has serving the Bahamas from Florida.
“With our cost structure and the costs of the 34-seater, we make those routes work year round in the Bahamas and we think Cuba will work in the same way,” Silver chief executive Sami Teittinen tells Flightglobal.
Silver is the only US carrier that has applied to operate to all 10 Cuban cities authorised for international service. Teittinen says the smaller cities might not be able to support large aircraft but reckons they are the right size for Silver’s Saab turboprops.
While US airlines’ proposals for Cuba service from Florida were not surprising, route applications from a couple of airlines have raised eyebrows.
Denver-based Frontier Airlines, for example, has proposed daily service to Havana from its hometown, alongside thrice daily service on the popular Miami-Havana route among others.
Justifying the Denver route, Frontier says in its filing: “It must be appreciated that there are many other [cities] across the country that will desire to travel to Cuba… Frontier’s depth of DEN service and strong western low fare brand would truly open Cuba to the western United States.”
To a lesser extent, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines surprised with its proposal for twice daily Los Angeles-Havana service - a route also on the wishlist of American, albeit with a less frequent weekly frequency.
Alaska says in its filing: “California ranks second among states with the largest Cuban-American population."
Data from MPI shows that Los Angeles County is in fifth place with the most number of Cuban immigrants in the USA, with about 19,100 immigrants.
This is just above the 18,700 Cubans estimated to reside in Hudson County, New Jersey, which is served by New York’s three main airports. Delta, JetBlue and United all want to serve Cuba from at least one of the three airports.
It is not immediately clear if travel demand to Cuba will grow outside of the areas with substantial Cuban immigration populations, when scheduled flights come online. Travel to Cuba by US citizens for tourism purposes is still prohibited, although travel is allowed under 12 broad categories, including trips for governmental purposes, education and research, and religious activities among others.
Fort Worth-based American has called on the DOT to give priority to Miami service, citing what it calls “necessarily limited” demand for Cuba service outside the city.
“Any decision that simply distributes frequencies to various US carriers at other gateways without regard for the far greater demand generated by the Cuban American community in Miami will fail to ‘maximise public benefits’,” says American.
US transportation officials have said that they expect to decide on the most contested routes this summer, while uncontested route authorities might be awarded sooner. Comments and responses on the applications are due 21 March.
Additional reporting by Edward Russell
Source: Cirium Dashboard