After the U.S. and Cuba agreed on a deal that would enable commercial flights between the two countries, several U.S. carriers said they would file applications to operate to Cuba later this year. What changes will scheduled service to Cuba mean to charter operators and to U.S. tour operators booking people-to-people programs?
Currently, all flights between the two countries are chartered by a number of Florida-based companies, including Marazul Charters, ABC Charters, Xael Charters, Gulfsream Air Charter, Island Travel & Tours and Havana Air. Major carriers, such as American and JetBlue, lease their aircraft to charter companies for Cuba flights.
Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet, which offers four Cuba itineraries on its people-to-people programs, said that “the convenience factor of scheduled through-flights for our clients will be huge."
“It is very inconvenient and costly for them to have to fly to Miami and overnight there before getting on the charter flight to Cuba the next day,” Goldman said.
She pointed out that travelers on scheduled commercial flights will be able to check luggage all the way through to Cuba, something they cannot do now since they have to switch to a charter flight.
The issue of blocking seats for groups on a scheduled flight and handling multiple transfers once clients arrive in Cuba on different flights are logistical problems; “we will have to see how they all work out,” Goldman said.
But: “Overall, let's pop the champagne," she said. "Scheduled flights will benefit travelers in terms of costs and convenience."
Under certain conditions, Friendly Planet will continue to use charter operators if, for example, seats for groups are unavailable on scheduled flights out of certain gateways.
Goldman pointed out that well before scheduled flights to Cuba take to the air, there are requirements that DOT has to work through as well as the Cubans who have to approve landing rights for each carrier. “They also have to protect the European and Canadian carriers that have been bringing travelers to Cuba for years,” she said.
Bob Guild, vice president of charter operator Marazul, said that the transition from charter flights to scheduled flights would be challenging. “More than likely this will be rolled out over a period of months on American, Delta, JetBlue and United, and we will be working with them to schedule our groups on their flights," he said. "I am assuming the U.S. gateways will be Atlanta, JFK, Los Angeles and Miami."
This transition process also will continue to include charter flights, he said. “The charter flights will be a supplemental way to get travelers to Cuba.”
Guild said that those charter flights will be important. “Restrictions will continue until Congress lifts the embargo and even if/when they do, there is still the Cuba infrastructure to deal with. It's close to capacity now, and no big changes are expected in the hotel situation for two to three years.
In Guild's opinion, scheduled flights are good news for Cuba-bound travelers. “They will get good service; the airlines have many planes, so if one breaks down there is another to quickly replace it; and I'm hoping the fares will go down and landing fees lowered for all flights, scheduled and charter.”
Many charter operators already have added ground arrangements to their list of services as a way to supplement revenue.