This week, one of the greatest legacies of the Cold War came down with the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. But diplomatic relations don’t mean normal trade relations just yet. Fort Worth-based American Airlines knows this all too well. This week the company proudly announced they’re ready to start booking flights to Cuba…if only Washington will give them clearance for takeoff. The Standard spoke with Andrea Ahles, a business reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Is this announcement a move to build up public pressure for unrestricted flights to Cuba?
“It’s not that uncommon with airlines in general. Whenever you’re flying international routes, typically there are government permissions they have to get, whether they’re flying to China, or flying to Brazil, or in this case flying to Cuba. But what’s interesting about the Cuban announcement that American made yesterday — and United and Delta put out similar statements as well — is that American actually already does fly to Cuba. They operate about, almost 11,000 charter flights to Cuba this year from Miami and Tampa — from airports there. But they can’t just let anybody go. They can’t have…regularly scheduled service.”
Are these airlines trying to put themselves at the front of the line with these announcements?
“They are jockeying for position… it might be slot restricted, so you may only have certain numbers of flights that can go — and then the airlines will be competing for that in Washington, to see who gets the right to fly it. American is proud to say, ‘Well, we’ve been flying there for 25 years, so…we should obviously be the ones to offer scheduled service.’ But it’s interesting now — it actually became a lot easier to go to Cuba as an American citizen for all the purposes except for tourism. I mean, you can now go to Cuba for an educational tour, or you can do a religious activity there, or you can go participate in public performances or sports competitions. So as a regular American citizen, as of this past January, the U.S. Treasury Department made it a lot easier for you to book one of these educational — recreational tours. You just can’t go as a plain tourist to go hang out on the beach or buy your Cuban cigars. You have to be in one of these categories.”
How much of a potential tourist market does the U.S. have for Cuba?
“It’s minimal. Mainly at this point, the airlines — particularly their charter flights — are marketing to people that have Cuban relatives, or are from Cuba, or various religious organizations maybe want to do church groups out there, or educational activities — college students; things like that. There actually already are tourists in Cuba — if you are coming from Europe, or if you’re from Canada, they already can fly with no restrictions, and can be tourists in Cuba. But we just don’t have that for America. There is — I’ve seen studies that say maybe about less than one percent of U.S. citizens have actually been to Cuba, and about 14 percent say they’re interested in going. Now, will that translate into a huge boom into Cuba for tourists? We’re just not sure; it sort of remains to be seen. But obviously the airlines, particularly American, would love to be carrying tourists to and from Havana.”