6 airlines, including Sun Country, approved for Cuba flights

HAVANA (AP) — Six airlines won permission Friday to resume scheduled commercial air service from the U.S. to Cuba for the first time in more than five decades, another milestone in President Barack Obama's campaign to normalize relations between the two countries.

The airlines — American, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver Airways, Southwest and Sun Country — were approved by the Department of Transportation for a total of 155 roundtrip flights per week. They'll fly from five U.S. cities to nine cities in Cuba other than Havana.

The airlines must begin service within 90 days, although they can request an extension if they need more time. Some of the airlines have been working for months on logistics and have told the department they could start flying in as few as 60 days. Other airlines have indicated they may need as much as four months to get ready.

Approval is still required by the Cuban government, but the carriers say they plan to start selling tickets in the next few weeks while they wait for signoffs from Cuba.

Sun Country Airlines statement

Zarir Erani, President and CEO of Sun Country Airlines: "Sun Country Airlines is pleased to be awarded route authorities to fly non-stop service from Minneapolis/St. Paul to both Matanzas, Cuba and to Santa Clara, Cuba. We are evaluating our aircraft availability to determine a schedule plan for beginning the new services. The United States Department of Transportation is still determining which carriers will be awarded service to Havana."

More than a year ago, Obama announced it was time to "begin a new journey" with Cuba. "Today we are delivering on his promise," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

As it considers opening routes to Havana, the department's selection process has been complicated because airlines have requested far more routes than are available under the U.S. agreement with Cuba. A decision on Havana routes is expected later this summer.

The routes approved Friday were not contested because there was less interest among U.S. airlines in flying to Cuban locations other than Havana.

All flights currently operating between the two countries are charters, but the agreement the administration signed with Cuba in February allows for up to 110 additional flights — more than five times the current charter operations.

American Airlines has been the most aggressive in its approach, requesting more than half the possible slots to Havana plus service to five other, smaller Cuban cities. The airline has a large hub in Miami, home to the largest Cuban-American population. The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline has also been flying aircraft on behalf of charter companies for the longest time, since 1991.

U.S. airlines have been feverishly working to establish relationships with Cuban authorities. For instance, American had a number of meetings this week in Havana with Cuban aviation and banking officials.

"We have been working for months on this plan," Galo Beltran, Cuba country manager for American Airlines told The Associated Press this week during the trip to Havana. "For us, it is going to be fairly easy because of the experience we have."

Cuba already has seen startling growth in aviation. Last year, it saw 18 percent more passengers than in 2014, according to government aviation officials.

Currently, 46 airlines fly to Cuba, including Air France, Aeromexico, KLM, Air Canada, Areoflot and Iberia.

Cuban aviation officials say they are ready for the extra flights but that questions remain, especially at Havana's airport, about where the additional planes will park.

There has been plenty of interest by Americans in visiting Cuba since relations between the two nations started to thaw in December 2014. Nearly 160,000 U.S. leisure travelers flew to Cuba last year, along with hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans visiting family.

Most Americans still cannot legally visit Cuba; however, the Obama administration has eased rules to the point where travelers are now free to design their own "people-to-people" cultural exchange tours with very little oversight.

Prices for an hourlong charter flight are about $500, while commercial airlines will probably offer flights for significantly less than that amount, although none have publicly discussed pricing. The check-in process for charters is also a cumbersome one, and the companies lack the traditional supports of commercial aviation such as online booking and 24-hour customer service.

Statements from Minnesota congressional delegation

“The new direct Sun Country flights between Minnesota and Cuba will help boost Minnesota exports and allow Cubans greater access to Minnesota-made goods and products,” said Klobuchar. “As we continue to break down barriers that prevent travel to Cuba, we must build on this progress and pass my bipartisan bill to lift the trade embargo. If we don’t, the millions of Americans that will visit Cuba will end up staying in Spanish hotels and eating Chinese food instead of Minnesota-based businesses like Carlson and General Mills." - Sen. Amy Klobuchar

“The newly approved direct flights to Cuba are great news for Minnesota businesses and travelers. When I visited Cuba last year, I focused on finding ways to expand economic and travel opportunities for Minnesotans. And this historic announcement will do just that. Direct flights by Sun Country Airlines from Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport will help Minnesotans and our businesses continue to play a critical role as our country improves relations with Cuba.” - Sen. Al Franken

“Allowing Americans to travel to Cuba is a major step to normalizing relations and expanding trade opportunities. By facilitating travel we can show the Cuban people the great benefits of democracy. This announcement will help meet the transportation needs of Minnesotans looking to visit or do business in Cuba.” - Rep. Collin Peterson

“Today’s announcement that Sun Country will be able to fly directly to Cuba is great news for Minnesota families and businesses. Sometimes you just need a break from cold and dark Minnesota winters, and I know Minnesotans will take full advantage of these direct flights for business or for cultural exchange.” - Rep. Betty McCollum

“Sun Country’s establishment of flights between Minnesota and Cuba will provide wonderful opportunities for American businesses and tourists alike. When I met with President Fidel Castro in Havana in 1977 to negotiate the release of American prisoners and establish an exchange program between the U of M and Havana Schools of Agriculture, Castro predicted it would take another thirty years for our two nations to resume normal diplomatic relations. I thought him overly pessimistic at the time, but he proved to be correct. So I am tremendously pleased to that we are taking these important steps to bridge transportation between our two nations, separated by only ninety miles of water.” - Rep. Rick Nolan

“Sun Country Airlines is a proud Minnesota business and deserving of these direct flights to Cuba. I am excited about the possibilities the flights will create for Minnesota’s economy as well as businesses and families across our state.” - Rep. Erik Paulsen

“Today’s announcement by the Department of Transportation to approve Sun Country Airlines’ direct flights to Cuba is a great step in the ever-evolving U.S. – Cuba relationship. Because of this move, Minnesota’s own Sun Country will be now be able to have a direct path for Minnesota businesses and families to the neighboring Cuba and all this budding relationship has to offer.” - Rep. Tom Emmer