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The United States and Cuba have signed a deal that restores commercial air traffic between the countries for the first time in five decades. It will allow dozens of daily flights. They will bring hundreds of thousands more American travelers a year to the island as early as this fall.
Immediately after the signing, the U.S. Department of Transportation opened bidding by American air carriers on as many as 110 U.S.-Cuba flights a day. It is more than five times the current number. All flights operating between the two countries today are charters.
Barring other major announcements, the restart of commercial flights will be the most significant development in U.S.-Cuba trade since Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced in late 2014 that they would begin normalizing ties. This was after a half-century of opposition. The Obama administration is eager to make rapid progress on building trade and diplomatic ties with Cuba. The goal is to do it before the president leaves office. The coming weeks are seen as particularly crucial to building momentum ahead of a trip he hopes to make to Havana by the end of March.
"Today is a historic day in the relationship between Cuba and the U.S.," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said after he and Cuban Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez signed the deal Feb. 16. They met in a ceremony at Havana's Hotel Nacional. "It represents a critically important milestone in the U.S. effort to engage with Cuba."
The U.S. Department of Transportation expects to award the new routes by the summer. The winning airlines then must negotiate their own deals with Cuba.
Yzquierdo declined an interview request. But Foxx said after meeting with the Cuban minister that he believed Cuba was eager to restore commercial air service as quickly as possible.
"Every indication I have in the conversations we've had today is that the Cubans want to move as fast as we're able to move," Foxx said. "People will actually be able to go buy a ticket and fly to Cuba on a commercial airline. That's a pretty big step. We haven't been able to do that in 50 years."
The agreement allows 20 regular daily U.S. flights to Havana. They will be in addition to the current 10-15 charter flights a day. The rest would be to other Cuban cities.
Nearly 160,000 U.S. leisure travelers flew to Cuba last year. That number does not include the hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans visiting family, mostly on expensive charter flights out of Florida.
Commercial flights will make travel to Cuba far easier for U.S. travelers. The new flights would include features such as online booking and 24-hour customer service. Those features largely are not available in the charter industry.
U.S. visitors to Cuba will still have to qualify under one of the travel categories legally authorized by the U.S. government. Tourism is still barred by law. But the number of legal reasons to go to Cuba, from organizing professional meetings to distributing information to Cubans, has grown large and is loosely enforced. Today, the distinction from tourism has blurred significantly.
Commercial travel will give travelers the ability to simply check an online box on a long list of authorized categories.
The deal does not contemplate flights by Cuba's national airline to the United States. In the U.S., lawyers for families and businesses have sued Havana over decades-old property confiscations. They are eager to freeze any Cuban assets that they can get their hands on.
American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said the company plans to bid on routes from Miami and other unspecified "American hubs."
United Airlines is also looking to serve Havana from some of its hubs, spokesman Luke Punzenberger said. The carrier's major hubs include Chicago, Houston, Washington and Newark, New Jersey. It currently does not fly charters to Cuba.
JetBlue Airways said it was eager to offer service between "multiple" cities in the United States and the island. JetBlue spokesman Doug McGraw said, "interest in Cuba has reached levels not seen for a generation."
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why must airlines bid for the chance to fly to Cuba?
Write your answers in the comments section below