Air Force One is just the first of many American airplanes that will be touching down in Cuba for the first time. President Obama and the whole family arrived in Havana's Jose Marti International Airport on Sunday — something that American tourists haven't been allowed to do since the Cuban embargo began in the 1960s. Flights to the island were cancelled 53 years ago, but all that is about to change as commercial flights to Cuba will likely begin this summer. Obama's visit may even hasten a return to travel with no restrictions, which could result in lower ticket prices.
In December, the two countries agreed to restore the flights, and in February, the accord was signed, allowing the U.S. government to begin accepting applications from U.S. companies that want to fly to the island — but those applications are still pending. Flights could begin as early as the summer, though, if the Department of Transportation approves bids from some of the at least eight carriers looking to add flights to Cuba to their route maps. The Associated Press reported earlier in March that the DOT will spend the next several months considering the requests and should award the routes by the summer.
The deal worked out by the two governments allows 20 daily departures from Havana as well as 10 daily departures from nine other destinations, for a 110 total each day. That could even be expanded in the future, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Transportation Affairs Thomas Engle told the AFP. That's a big increase from the current 10 to 15 charter flights each day serving the island from the U.S. mainland. Since the mid-1970s, airlines have been able to fly charter service if they meet certain criteria.
Of the current routes, the most sought-after are Havana's. Cuban airlines cannot yet compete as none are yet licensed by U.S. authorities. Of the American companies, American Airlines has been the most aggressive bidder. It has asked for more than half of the Havana slots. It has a big hub focused on Latin America in Miami. All the other legacy carriers put their name in the ring too — even smaller carriers like Southwest, Jet Blue, and Frontier are interested. So is Silver Airways, a Florida-based regional airline.
Even when the service is restored, though, not everyone will be allowed to travel to Cuba legally. The trade embargo is still in effect and tourism is not allowed. That said, the number of exceptions has grown very large and the embargo against travelers is so loosely enforced that nearly 160,000 U.S. leisure travelers flew to Cuba last year. Just before Obama's trip new rules were announced that makes legal travel even easier. You no longer need a tour company — people-to-people trips are allowed.
If the trade embargo were lifted and travel were completely unrestricted, research conducted by Hopper, an app that predicts the best time to buy a flight, suggests prices could drop 50 percent. The current price for a direct charter flight from the states is about $717. Through third countries like Mexico, they run about $576, the research said. The added commercial flights could help reduce the price but a full end to the embargo would see prices around $364.
Airlines are not the only American companies moving into the Cuba market. AirBnB, Starwood Hotels, and Carnival Cruises are operating or soon will begin operations in the country. These changes may not be as historic as Obama's talks with Raul Castro on political freedoms, but they will bring the Cuban and American people closer together. And that seems like progress.