United Airlines made it clear Thursday it intends to offer regular commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba, saying it would look to offer service from its Houston and Newark hubs to the Caribbean island.
The Chicago-based carrier’s statement came Thursday, following the administration’s announcement that it would begin steps to ease restrictions against Cuba starting Friday.
“We plan to serve Cuba, subject to government approvals, and look forward to doing so from our global gateways of Newark and Houston,” the airline said in a statement.
Many details remain to be worked out before such service could begin.
The Department of Transportation said Thursday the U.S. regulators will work with Cuba to explore air service expansion. An specific air service agreement between the two countries would be required before regular commercial flights could start between the countries.
New rules that take effect Friday will clear the way for more U.S. travel to Cuba. American citizens bring home Cuban cigars, use credit cards in the country and invest in small businesses, the Treasury and Commerce departments said Thursday, among other changes.
Only Congress is authorized to end the 5-decades-old embargo against Cuba. But President Obama announced last month he would soften the embargo and begin restoring diplomatic ties with the country.
While general tourism is still not allowed, travelers allowed to visit Cuba no longer need to apply for special licenses. Under existing rules, Americans were allowed to travel to Cuba for family visits, government business, journalism, research or religious activity.
“You’re going to see a lot of people who really want to go to this destination that has been closed off to the U.S. for so many years,” said Pete Garcia, a Woodlands-based airline consultant who previously worked for Continental Airlines. “Any carrier that starts service will do very well.”
With the changes, the number of visitors to Cuba is expected to jump. And Houston, as a key gateway to Latin America, is poised to benefit. Local travel agents have said Houstonians are fascinated by the country, as it has been forbidden for so many years.
The infrastructure is already in place here to capitalize on the travel changes. In 2011, Bush Intercontinental Airport was designated as one of the airports that could legally charter flights to Cuba. The first one took off in February 2012 with 80 passengers. Several charters have flown from the airport since, but none on a regular basis.
American Airlines, which has operated flights to Cuba for 15 years, dominates U.S. travel there. JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines were among the companies that started flying charters in 2011 from Florida
Commercial flights between Houston and Cuba are still far in the future, Garcia predicted, adding that United won’t be alone as airlines will want to offer flights.
“We are still very far from an open skies agreement between U.S. and Cuba,” Garcia said, using the common name for agreements between countries for international flights. “The recent events in Cuba are just the tip of a lot that has lay the ground work for American citizens to travel and spend freely in the country.”
By Erin Mulvaney, Houston Chronicle
January 15, 2015
The Associated Press contributed to this report.