American Airlines has launched regularly scheduled service to Cuba, operating non-charter flights to the island for the first time.
American Flight 903 landed in Cienfuegos, Cuba, ahead of schedule at about 11:15 a.m. local time “to applause from passengers,” according to a first-hand account from The Miami Herald. American’s second regularly scheduled flight to Cuba – Flight 1041 from Miami to Holguin – touched down about a half hour later.
American becomes the second big U.S. airline – and third overall – to add regular service to Cuba since the Obama administration moved to relax flight restrictions between the nations.
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JetBlue was first when it launched a route from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Cuba, on Aug. 31. Small commuter carrier Silver Airways followed suit a day later with turboprop service to Cuba from Florida.
Prior to JetBlue's launch, U.S. flights to Cuba operated as charters that could be sold only through tour operators approved by the federal government. Tickets were typically expensive and booking cumbersome. The move to loosen those restrictions now allows airline to operate normal "scheduled" service between the USA and Cuba, though passengers remain responsible for certifying that they're eligible to travel under one of the 12 reasons allowed by the U.S. government.
American had flown Cuba charter flights for approved tour operators since the 1990s, but had never flown regularly scheduled service.
The Cuba market will be an important one for American, which had long been viewed as the USA’s top carrier to the Caribbean. But American has trimmed service to parts of the region during the past decade. Perhaps most notable was a downsizing of a hub that American once operated from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Cutbacks by American and other legacy carriers helped open the door for a major expansion in the Caribbean by rival JetBlue, which has quickly become one of the top U.S. players in the islands. JetBlue even flies flatbed seats on some of its Caribbean routes from New York and Boston.
American and JetBlue also are likely to battle over the Cuban market. The two airlines will offer the greatest seat capacity between the USA and Cuba once all of the approved routes launch. Havana flights – which were approved later than flights to the rest of Cuba – will begin later this year.
American’s first flights to Cienfuegos and Holguin are just the first of many for which the carrier has been approved. American also is launching routes this week to the Cuban cities of Santa Clara, Camaguey and Varadero. To Havana, American will eventually offer four daily round-trips from Miami and one from Charlotte.
“There is no other airline in the world that will have as many flights to Cuba,” American spokeswoman Martha Pantin says to the Herald.
But, on Wednesday, the focus was on the launch of regularly scheduled service. For Miami -- long the U.S. city with the closest ties to Cuba -- the flight was the first "normal" airline flight in 55 years.
“Today is historic not only for American Airlines but also for Miami, the heart and soul of the Cuban-American community in the United States,” Ralph Lopez, American’s vice president for its Miami hub operation, said at a ceremony prior to Wednesday’s Cuba departures, according to the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida. “It’s been more than 50 years since there has been commercial air service to Cuba and today, Sept. 7, 2016, we begin service not to one, but two of our six destinations in the country.”
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A pilot waves as he prepares to push back from the gate for American Airlines Flight 903, becoming the first commercial flight from Miami to Cuba in 55-years on Sept. 7, 2016 in Miami. (Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)