Now that Americans are traveling to Cuba again and the US embassy in Havana has re-opened, the Obama administration is looking to allow scheduled air service between the US and Cuba (rather than just charter flights) by the end of the year. A key stumbling block is allowing Cuba’s state airline Cubana de Aviación to fly to the US.
Cubana, originally started as a subsidiary of Pan Am, flies predominantly Russian aircraft but has 5 leased Airbus planes (A319 and A320s) from Avion Express. Ironically for an airline owned by a communist government, the majority of their fleet offers more than one class of service. (For what it’s worth, so does Air Koryo.)
Back in May I expressed skepticism about the potential of the Cuban aviation market for US airlines. I believe it’s overhyped.
American just announced an expansion of their charter flights to Cuba, and is chomping at the bit to begin scheduled service.
American’s new charter service between Los Angeles and Havana will be sold by Cuba Travel Services and will operate on Saturdays beginning Dec.12 with Boeing 737 aircraft. In addition, American will operate a Saturday flight between Miami International Airport and Havana, also sold by Cuba Travel Services.
American has operated charter flights to Cuba since 1991. With these additions, American will offer 22 weekly flights from Miami, Tampa and Los Angeles to five destinations in the country: Camagüey, Cienfuegos, Havana, Holguin and Santa Clara.
There’s a novelty factor for US tourists, and the potential for catchup growth if the Cuban government allows it. However,
- Pretty much all traffic for these flights will originate in the US. There’s almost no customer base to support these flights in Cuba.
- Planes will be filled predominantly with leisure travel. Cuba isn’t a strong business destination.
- Infrastructure in Cuba, from the airport to hotels, is wholly inadequate to match an aviation boom and influx of tourists. (Although scheduled flights versus international charters might at least move from terminal 2 in Havana to the more modern terminal 3.)
- It’s an expensive airport to operate at, with costs that make Miami look like Branson, Missouri.
In fairness, it’s a somewhat strong tourist destination from Canada, although Air Canada’s daily Toronto-Havana flight from Toronto is operated only with a 97 seat Embraer E-190. Several airlines make once a week Cuba service work from a variety of Canadian cities to places like Holguin in Cuba bypassing Havana. So there is a market albeit not a huge one. Miami is likely to be a stronger gateway as well.
While Cuba is a new and exciting market, I believe it’s a limited one and not a new airline gold rush.
Cuba is interesting mostly as a forbidden fruit. In Argentina at least there’s a saying, “Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué,” or “I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why.” In Colombo, Sri Lanka earlier this year I came across these contradictory symbols on a local vehicle:
And of course at one time Guevara was featured at the W South Beach.
I just hope that when people do go, they’ll internalize what he — and the Cuban revolution — have meant for the lives of people.