Benét J. Wilson | USA TODAY | April 15, 2015
CheapAir.com on Wednesday became the first online travel agency to offer direct flights between the United States and Cuba. Those authorized to travel to Cuba can now book nonstop flights from New York JFK and Tampa airports to Havana. From Miami, flights can be booked to the Cuban cities of Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Santa Clara, Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Holguin.
CheapAir.com became the first online travel agency to offer flights between Cuba and the U.S. about six weeks ago, said CEO Jeff Klee. “But we had to do it through a third country, like Mexico or Panama, for scheduled flights,” he said. “Once we starting doing that, we were approached by Cuba Travel Services, which has done charters to Cuba for many years. We were intrigued with the idea of integrating their inventory.”
Cuba Travel Services and CheapAir.com worked out the details and handled the technical integration required to book the flights directly from the U.S., said Klee. Flights between Miami and Cuba will operate daily. JFK-Havana flights depart and arrive on Tuesdays, and flights between Tampa and Havana fly on Sundays and Thursdays.
Charter flights to Cuba are nothing new, said Klee. A number of U.S. airlines already operate Cuba flights on behalf of charter outfits, but those trips can be booked only through the charter companies.
CheapAir’s moves on Cuba booking come after the Obama administration announced it would take steps to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba.
While rules on travel to Cuba are being relaxed, there are still significant restrictions. The policy change means the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control no longer requires special licenses to visit Cuba. Travelers will only have to certify they are visiting in one of 12 categories — educational, religious and humanitarian projects, among others — while tourism remains prohibited.
“The only thing different is that we are making flights available online. It’s just like booking a flight anywhere else,” he said. “But it’s still not legal for just anyone to fly to Cuba, so we have to have those booking flights check one of the 12 categories for travelers. Other than that, it’s no different from booking a flight to Las Vegas.”
Still, Klee notes to WTSP 10 of Tampa: “The law still only permits you to go to Cuba for 12 specific reasons. You can’t just decide that you want to go lie on a beach for a week and hop on a plane.”
Going forward, Klee said it was hard to predict numbers. But he believes it was worth the effort to pursue online Cuba bookings.
“There’s a ton of interest in Cuba travel, and if it does well, we’d definitely be interested in expanding with other tour operators,” he said. “In my personal opinion, within a year, anyone will be able to book a flight to Cuba as easy as anywhere else.”
Benét J. Wilson is a Baltimore-based aviation journalist and writer and a contributor to Ben Mutzabaugh’s Today in the Sky blog. You also can follow her on Twitter at @AvQueenBenet.