Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Cuba? Of Course. Just Not Right Now.
February 18, 2016 -- Word to the wise frequent flyer: Don't plan your family's Christmas holiday in Cuba. I know you're hearing plenty about Cuba. Today, President Barack Obama announced via Twitter he will visit there next month. That news comes after hundreds of new flights were approved for U.S. airlines that want to offer scheduled service to the once-forbidden island. And I know you've read dozens of stories about how intrepid Americans travelers are beating the crowds by visiting now. Hell, there are no less than four Cuba stories on the home page of my own website this week. In other words, Cuba's hot hot hot. It's where the elite meet. It's where to go next. Except that most of you can't. Honest. It's still against the law, there's still a U.S. embargo on most trade and travel and nothing the Transportation Department announced this week changed that. Besides, the chances that a Republican-controlled Congress will heed the president's calls to lift the 54-year-old Cuban embargo are about as great as an Obama Supreme Court nominee getting through the Republican-controlled Senate. Which is to say DOA. Then what's all the Cuba commotion about? Possibilities. Market opportunity. The inevitability of U.S. carriers flying fleets of aircraft to Cuba. And the reality of leisure and business travel to Cuba eventually resuming in great volume. It won't be today or tomorrow or even this year. But next year, after the elections, the embargo will almost certainly end regardless of which party is in the White House and which one controls the House and Senate. So while everyone today is talking about Obama's own travel plans to Havana, we might as well talk about the renewed commercial flights to Cuba, what it means, and how it's likely to develop. For starters, ignore the official announcement of 110 flights per day between the United States and Cuba. There won't be anywhere near that many. The only ones guaranteed to launch are the 20 daily flights to and from Havana. The other 90 are earmarked for nine secondary Cuban destinations and it's difficult to believe that many will elicit the interest of U.S. carriers. After all, do you want to visit — or have even heard of — places such as Moa, Las Tunas, Baracoa or Nueva Gerona? Some carriers may be willing to test flights to Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city, or Varadero, Cuba's most important tourist port and the country's prime resort area, but not immediately. Who'll do the flying? That shouldn't surprise you. All three legacy carriers (American, United and Delta) as well as JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines were quick to say this week that they are interested in scheduled Cuba service. (Most already do special charter service to the island.) Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines may want to fly, too, although they were more circumspect in their statements. Which carriers will actually win "route awards" from the Transportation Department and Cuban aviation authorities? Hard to say. (Applications are due in the next two weeks and official designations are likely to come sometime this summer.) We can indulge in some informed speculation, however. According to census data, more than half of the nation's Cuban ex-pat and Cuban-American populations live in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area. That virtually guarantees route awards to Havana for American Airlines and its Miami hub as well as JetBlue and Spirit, which each have hub-like operations in Fort Lauderdale. New York, the nation's largest market and home to more than 7 percent of the nation's Cuban population, will surely get Havana flights, too. That means a good shot for Delta Air Lines from either its LaGuardia or Kennedy hubs, the possibility for more flights for American and JetBlue from their Kennedy hubs and service for United Airlines, which operates from Newark Airport. Los Angeles (all three legacy carriers and Alaska claim hubs there) and Chicago (American and United from O'Hare Airport and Southwest from Midway Airport) will almost surely get Havana flights. Also good candidates: Tampa, where more than 4 percent of the U.S. Cuban population lives; Orlando and Las Vegas, which would appeal to wealthy Cubans; Atlanta; Houston; and Washington, D.C. One airline you won't see? Cubana, the flag carrier of Cuba. It has a long string of financial judgments against it issued by U.S. courts dating back to the Castro takeover in 1959. If Cubana flew into a U.S. airport, its aircraft might be summarily seized to satisfy half-century old debts. When the route awards are finalized and airlines get their operations in order, flights are likely to begin during the fall. But if ordinary business and leisure travel is barred, the obvious question is who gets to fly the new flights? The State Department and U.S. Treasury have carved out a dozen exceptional cases where Americans can travel to Cuba. But how, exactly, the airline will market the flights remain something of a mystery, even to the airlines themselves. "There's a working group dedicated to figuring out the Cuba stuff," an executive at a legacy carrier told me last week. "We're focusing at the medium-term development of the market. Short-term, who knows? We're probably just planting the flag." While run-of-the-mill business or leisure travel remain off-limits now, it's impossible to argue that U.S. vacationers and first-wave businesspeople aren't going. More than 150,000 Americans made the Cuba run last year, not including hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans going home for a visit. If anything will depress U.S.-Cuba travel in the immediate months ahead, it'll be the infrastructure in Havana and the rest of the island. No U.S. hotel chain operates in Cuba, of course, so you won't find a Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Starwood. Wyndham or Choice property. InterContinental, based in Britain, has no Cuba hotels. Accor, based in Paris, has just one. Spanish chains that operate in Cuba are largely unknown in the United States. American car rental firms are also absent. Internet is spotty. In other words, for most of us, it's wait 'til next year if you want to walk along the Malecon, the broad boulevard and seawall that hugs the Havana waterfront or check into the Nacional de Cuba, Havana's iconic grande dame hotel.
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