The United States and Cuba signed an agreement Tuesday that paves the way for up to 110 commercial flights per day between the two countries.
Several U.S. carriers, including American Airlines and Jet Blue, immediately indicated that they will seek permits to fly into Havana and other popular Cuban cities, with dozens of daily flights expected to begin as early as this fall.
The resumption of commercial flights between the two countries has been hailed as a significant development after five decades of Cold War opposition and is expected to lead to a surge in tourism from the U.S. to Cuba.
The move could have an impact on tourism across the Caribbean, with Cuba expected to take some market share from other destinations in the region which rely heavily on American visitors.
It is also likely to impact Cayman Airways, which currently flies daily to Havana from Grand Cayman, and once a week from Cayman Brac to Holguin in eastern Cuba.
The Cuba flights, one of Cayman Airways’ profitable routes, rely, in part, on travelers transiting through Cayman from Cuba to the U.S., or vice versa.
Fabian Whorms, CEO of Cayman Airways, said, “The new Air Service Agreement between Cuba and the USA has been in the works for the past year and comes as no surprise to Cayman Airways.”
He added, “Cayman Airways will continue to monitor the situation over the next eight to 10 months in order to be able to address in a timely manner, any changes necessary to our network and frequency.”
In an earlier interview, Mr. Whorms said he believed there would still be a significant role for Cayman to play in the Cuba market.
He said the “tremendous increase” in demand that would result if the U.S. allowed unrestricted travel to Cuba would not be immediately met by an increase in supply from U.S. carriers.
The agreement allows 20 regular daily U.S. flights to Havana, in addition to the current 10-15 charter flights a day. The rest would be to other Cuban cities.
American air carriers now have 15 days to apply to the Department of Transportation for permits to offer the flights.
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 so large and is so loosely enforced that the distinction from tourism has blurred significantly.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Cuban Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez signed the deal in a ceremony at Havana’s Hotel Nacional.
“Today is a historic day in the relationship between Cuba and the U.S.,” said Foxx. “It represents a critically important milestone in the U.S. effort to engage with Cuba.”
Yzquierdo Rodriguez said “the adoption of this memorandum is an important step that will soon permit the establishment of regular flights between the United States and Cuba.”
Nearly 160,000 U.S. leisure travelers flew to Cuba last year, along with hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans visiting family, mostly on charter flights out of Florida.
Commercial flights could bring hundreds of thousands more U.S. travelers a year and make the travel process far easier.
American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said the company plans to bid on routes from Miami and other unspecified “American hubs.”
The carrier has been operating U.S.-Cuba charter flights since April 1991, the longest of any U.S. airline, and currently offers 22 weekly flights out of Miami to Havana, Camaguey, Cienfuegos, Holguin and Santa Clara. American also flies from Tampa to Havana and Holguin, and between Los Angeles and Havana.
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 said it is eager to offer service between multiple cities in the United States and the island. Spokesman Doug McGraw said “interest in Cuba has reached levels not seen for a generation.” The carrier currently flies charters out of New York, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale to various Cuban destinations.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.