If a preliminary decision by the U.S. Department of Transportation stands, the Washington region will have found itself bypassed in its efforts to land nonstop air service to Cuba.
DOT officials on July 7 released a list of 10 U.S. airports that have been selected to offer service to Havana, starting as early as the fall.
Eight different airlines – Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United – received authority to serve Havana. And while United won permission to serve the Cuban capital from two of its requested four airports (Newark-Liberty and Houston-Intercontinental), its bids for service from Washington Dulles International and Chicago-O’Hare were turned down.
“We are disappointed,” said Kate (Roche) Bates, president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, which was among business groups from the Washington region to lobby on behalf of Dulles.
“United’s Washington Dulles-Havana service would naturally provide an important link between capital cities, fostering official travel between the U.S. and Cuban governments and increasing the role of intergovernmental organizations with Cuba,” Roche said.
But the Washington region’s bid was hampered by the relatively low number of Cuban-Americans living here. By contrast, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa, which have some of the largest concentrations of Cuban-Americans in the nation, all received service. So, too, did Los Angeles, Charlotte, New York (Kennedy) and Atlanta.
United had been seeking one flight per week between Washington Dulles and Havana, to have operated on Saturdays. If the preliminary awards are upheld, United’s service from Newark will operate daily (with additional service on Saturday), with its flights from Houston running Saturdays only.
In a statement, United’s president and CEO said he was pleased with the allocation.
“These flights open the door to a new world of travel and opportunities for our customers,” said Oscar Munoz.
United was the only carrier to request service from a Washington airport to Havana. No carriers sought flights between Washington and Cuba’s secondary cities; those routes were awarded in early June.
Despite frosty diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba in the six decades since Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba during the Eisenhower administration, Virginia in recent years has built up a solid trading relationship with the Caribbean island-nation. Gov. McAuliffe earlier this year led a trade delegation to Cuba.
Under an agreement signed between the U.S. and Cuban governments in February, each country gave the other the right to operate up to 20 flights per day between Havana and the United States.
U.S. airlines unhappy with the allocation from the Department of Transportation have until July 22 to file objections.
Even though scheduled air service between the two countries has been largely unavailable for a half-century, charter flights have operated with regularity in recent years. They will be permitted to continue.
While flight options will expand, Cuba still will remain off-limits to Americans who don’t have specific reasons to be there; merely wanting to visit as a tourist is not good enough. Categories that are permitted range from family visits and public performances to humanitarian efforts and “support for the Cuban people.”
Michael Forehand, vice president of government relations and counsel for the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said chamber leaders hope federal officials eventually will add Washington to the roster of regions with flights to Cuba’s capital.
“Approving capital-to-capital service from the Washington, D.C., metro area to Havana would be another tool to help grow existing businesses and attract new companies to our region,” he said. “We are disappointed in the decision by the U.S. Department of Transportation to not grant service from Washington Dulles International Airport to Havana at this time, but we remain hopeful that the application will ultimately be approved and Northern Virginia businesses will gain access to this new market.”