Five or six major U.S. airlines are “eager” to begin scheduled service to the island, but after a second round of talks between the United States and Cuba on civil aviation matters this week, there’s still no timetable for when such service could begin, a U.S. State Department official said Thursday.
The U.S. and Cuba held talks on civil aviation matters Monday and Tuesday in Havana and had “a good, candid exchange of views,” the official said. The first round of aviation talks was held in Washington in March and it’s possible there will be a third round in coming months.
“U.S. carriers are generally eager” to reach an informal arrangement that would allow scheduled service to begin “as soon as possible,” said the official, who declined to be more specific.
The move is part of the Obama administration’s goal of providing broader travel between the United States and Cuba as the two countries work toward normalizing relations. Diplomatic ties were restored and embassies were reopened on July 20.
The official said that Cuba has made it clear it wants reciprocity — meaning it also would like its airlines to offer scheduled service to the United States.
However, that desire could be complicated by civil judgments in U.S. courts against the Cuban government. Filed by those who claim they or family members have suffered abuses at the hands of the Cuban government, the suits have been piling up — as have the judgments, to the tune of several billion dollars. The plaintiffs have won their cases by default because Cuba has chosen not to defend itself.
If Cuban aircraft fly to the United States, there is a danger the planes could be seized to satisfy judgments. “Yes, that is a theoretical possibility,” said the official. “The topic has come up.”
The U.S. negotiators have been careful to make their Cuban counterparts understand there are “executive limitations” in helping on such matters, said the official. “I believe the Cuban side is very clear on what those limitations would be.”
Cuban leader Raúl Castro flew to New York last week to attend the United Nations General Assembly aboard a Cubana de Aviación plane, but it was a charter rather than a regularly scheduled flight.
“Nothing that I’ve heard indicates there’s been a solution to this,” said Washington attorney Robert Muse. “I’ve heard rumors of possible work-arounds, for example, [the Cubans] leasing a plane from a third party. But at the end of the day it seems that plane would also be subject to seizures and attachments.”
While the legality of using third-party aircraft was debated, such planes would likely be grounded, Muse said, delaying and complicating air travel between the two countries. “Miami would be particularly vulnerable to this because the bulk of these lawsuits emanate from Miami-Dade County,” he said.
Another scenario is that the “U.S. government could always file a statement of interest and seek to have the suits vacated,” Muse said. But that, too, could be a long process.
The State Department official said the two sides also discussed aviation safety and security, the U.S. regulatory environment and its impact on Cuban airlines flying to the United States, and the aviation infrastructure in Cuba.
The island currently has 10 international airports. As travel to Cuba increases, the official said, the Cubans are “mindful” of the infrastructure challenges and are working on them.
Meanwhile, several commercial airlines, including JetBlue and American Airlines, have been leasing their planes to U.S. charter companies that fly to Cuba under license from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Having a leased JetBlue or American plane on the tarmac in Cuba is like an advance calling card for commercial airlines interested in flights to the island. “They would also like to provide scheduled service themselves,” said the official.
“Once we get the green light to offer regularly scheduled service, we are ready to go,” said Martha Pantin, an AA spokesperson.
American Airlines planes are used on some 22 weekly charter flights to Cuba , surpassing any other carrier, she said. They serve Camagüey, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Havana and Santa Clara from Miami and Tampa, and American plans to begin charter service from Los Angeles to Havana in December.
Working with charter companies, JetBlue also has leased its planes for several Florida-Cuba routes, and it will begin a second flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Havana on Dec. 1.
Reaching an arrangement for scheduled service wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of Cuba charter service, said the official: “In no way are we trying to limit or restrict charters.” The intent, the official said, is to provide more choices to consumers.
By Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald
October 1, 2015