In an uncanny confluence of events over the span of four
days last month, the first commercial flights since 1961 took off from the U.S.
to Havana, longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died and president-elect Donald
Trump tweeted a threat to "terminate the deal" that opened Cuba to
American travelers under President Obama.
Trump's tweet came three days after Castro's Nov. 25 death
and on the morning that American Airlines and JetBlue Airways became the first
carriers to launch commercial flights to Havana since the onset of the U.S.
trade embargo of Cuba in the 1960s.
American Flight 17 landed in Havana from Miami on Nov. 28,
shortly before JetBlue's Flight 243 arrived from New York. United, Delta,
Spirit and Frontier also began Havana service last week, with Southwest and
Alaska to follow on Dec. 12 and Jan. 5, respectively. All told, U.S. airlines
plan to operate 20 daily flights to Havana from 10 U.S. airports under the
aviation deal worked out between the U.S. and Cuba earlier this year.
In an interview, American spokesman Matt Miller said the
carrier did not have any insight into what the incoming Trump administration
might be thinking with regard to commercial Cuba flights.
"We can't speculate," he said. "We are
full-steam-ahead to begin service to Havana this week, and we are proud to be
the leading carrier from the U.S. to Cuba."
Miller said the memorandum of understanding that Cuba and
the U.S. entered into in February on commercial aviation has language that
would make it difficult for either country to immediately terminate the
Even so, no wording Travel Weekly found in the agreement
prevents such a move. The memorandum states that either party "should
endeavor to provide at least 60 days advanced written notice," prior to
John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic
Council, which supports increasing commercial ties between the nations, said
that an outright halt by the Trump administration of commercial flights to Cuba
would almost certainly bring lawsuits from airlines and travel agents, arguing
that they had relied on the DOT's approval of the flights in investing in and
making bookings, only to have those flights terminated without due process.
Ending the commercial flights, Kavulich said, could also
have political repercussions for Trump, because the cost of tickets is already
far lower than the cost of the charter flights for Cuban-American travelers,
who most commonly go there for family visits, an argument was made by several
companies last week.
"We believe that president-elect Trump is pro-business
and, more importantly, pro-American business," Florida-based Silver
Airways, which operates Cuba flights, said in a statement. "We are
optimistic that Mr. Trump sees regularly scheduled air service as a benefit to
Americans, Cuban-Americans and the people of Cuba. Returning to the previous
scheduled charter flights will only hurt public interest through higher fare
structure and limited service."
A more likely course of action, Kavulich said, would be for
the Trump administration to more vigorously interpret and enforce the 12 legal
exemptions to the Cuba travel ban, most notably the people-to-people exemption
that is most frequently used by tourists to the island.
The Office of Foreign Asset Control, Kavulich said, could
require travel agents to submit itineraries ahead of a trip, then hold them
responsible if the travelers don't fulfill the people-to-people requirements.
In addition, customs agents could more diligently screen
travelers returning from Cuba. In both cases, the effect would likely be fewer
travelers to the island nation, which could ultimately lead to a curtailing of
the still-nascent commercial air service.
Trump's Cuba position has changed since he began campaigning
in 2015, but in recent months he has threatened to roll back the increased
economic and travel ties that the countries have implemented over the past 23
Insight Cuba president Tom Popper said that those previous
positions -- such as saying the detente was "fine" -- could signify
room on the issue.
"The question is which President Trump will we see once
he takes office," he said. Popper said he believes there is no immediate
threat to Cuba travel, given that it is unlikely to be the first policy the
next president focuses on and because of the extensive deals being made with
"With the business community and investments that have
been made thus far -- the first commercial flights in decades, John Deere looking
to build a factory there, Airbnb having a strong presence, Starwood-Marriott
taking over the management of three hotels -- there are hundreds of businesses
engaged in negotiations there," Popper said. He agreed with Kavulich that
any change was unlikely to be a full rollback.
"I don't anticipate a total tear-down of the [Cuba]
travel policy," he said. "It is possible some restrictions might be
activated. This might include limits on cigars and rum and possibly a change to
how licensing works for group and/or individual travel."
Some companies last week cited evidence of tangible benefits
to the Cuban people.
Starwood stated that since securing a license to operate the
Havana Four Points by Sheraton in March it has been "creating
opportunities for Cuban nationals through hiring and training. ... We will
continue to be advocates for a normalization of relations between our countries
and for policies providing Americans with the freedom to travel to Cuba,
experience its rich culture and interact with its people."