The new restrictions imposed by the Trump administration
this week on travel from the U.S. to Cuba could end up compelling airlines to recalibrate
service to the island.
"Overall there are simply going to be fewer people
traveling to Cuba, and there will be fewer seats needed, fewer aircraft needed,
so you're going to see continuing adjustments of aircraft size and scheduling,"
said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
According to OAG data, airlines have had relatively
consistent U.S.-Cuba bookings of between 130,000 and 170,000 one-way passengers
per month since September 2017, following higher numbers during the first year
after commercial flights were authorized in late 2016.
Recent months have trended upward year-over-year. For
example, in March (the most recent month for which OAG provided data) travelers
flew 173,000 flight legs between the U.S. and Cuba compared with 148,000 a year
That trend could reverse following the Treasury Department's
decision on Tuesday to put an end to the cultural trips between the U.S. and
Cuba categorized as people-to-people travel.
According to Transportation Department figures provided by
Kavulich, 893,000 passengers flew from the U.S. to Cuba in 2018. Meanwhile, 586,000
people of Cuban descent visited the island nation in 2018, according to Cuba's
tourism ministry. Most arrived from the U.S and stayed with relatives or
Working under the supposition that most of those people
traveled to Cuba via air, Kavulich estimates that around 300,000 American
tourists flew to Cuba last year. Of those, almost all would have been traveling
under the people-to-people exemption (which the Trump administration has now nixed)
or the "support for Cuban people" exemption, which still exists.
operators have been saying that they can continue to offer trips to U.S.
citizens under the "support for Cuban people" exemption.
For now, airlines say
they will wait and see how the people-to-people ban affects demand.
"We are reviewing the revised regulations to determine
what the changes mean for our operations and our customers," JetBlue
spokesman Philip Stewart said in an email Wednesday. JetBlue flies the second-most
passengers between the U.S. and Cuba. American Airlines, the largest carrier in
the market, had a similar message.
The five U.S. carriers that serve Cuba already concentrate
the bulk of their departures in Florida, where most of the approximately 2
million Cuban-Americans reside. Those routes are mostly flown by Cubans who are
visiting friends and family.
Also, United flies to Havana from Houston and Newark,
JetBlue flies to Havana from New York JFK and Boston, and Delta serves Havana
Kavulich noted that United's Newark route serves northern
New Jersey, where the second-largest concentration of Cuban-Americans live. The
other non-Florida routes are more leisure-focused and could end up with capacity
reductions or a suspension of service, he said.
He added that airlines could choose to shift more of their
Cuba capacity to Florida as they exit other markets.
Still, much remains to be learned about how this week's
changes will impact U.S.-Cuba flight schedules. With Cuba cruises no longer
permitted from the U.S., hundreds of thousands of Americans who had been
visiting Cuba by sea can now only make the journey via air. But will they?
Cuba Candela CEO Chad Olin said he expects his air-reliant
tour operations to gain business.
"It's possible that the 300,000 people who were
visiting Cuba on a cruise will now fly and will go to Cuba on a stayover,"
he said. "So, it's possible that flights could increase."