It’s about to get a lot easier for Americans to travel to Cuba

In this Nov. 1, 2001, file photo, the first passengers of the first flight of Continental Airlines from Miami arrives at the Jose Marti Airport of Havana, Cuba. The United States and Cuba have reached an understanding on restoring regularly scheduled commercial flights, Cuban and American officials said Dec. 16, 2016. (Photo: AP)

MIAMI — Booking a trip to Cuba is about to get a whole lot easier.

Under an agreement announced Thursday — the one-year anniversary of the historic shift in relations between the United States and Cuba — airlines can begin operating regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two nations. That means Americans will soon be able to hop online, click a few buttons and head to Havana.

U.S. interest in the long-isolated island peaked this year after President Obama announced that the U.S. would begin normalizing relations with the Communist government there. But that diplomatic change did little to ease the onerous process American citizens go through to get there, including the complicated charter flight system that has been the only way to legally travel between the two countries.

Thomas Engle, the U.S. State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for transportation affairs, said there could be up to 110 round-trip flights a day under the new agreement, nearly quadrupling the current flow. That includes 20 flights a day between the U.S. and Cuba’s capital city of Havana, and 10 a day between the U.S. and nine international airports spread across the island.

Engle said the U.S. was pushing for unlimited flight opportunities, but the Cubans wanted to establish a limit due to concerns their airports could not handle such a high volume of passengers.

Traveling as a tourist is still forbidden under U.S. law, but American travelers flooded the island this year under 12 categories approved by the government, including humanitarian, educational and people-to-people trips designed to increase communication between citizens of both countries. Jeffrey DeLaurentis, head of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, said this week that U.S. travel to the island was up 50% in 2015.

Airlines that have been operating charter flights to Cuba say there’s demand for more.

“Interest in Cuba has reached levels not seen for a generation,” said Scott Laurence, senior vice president of airline planning for JetBlue, which has been operating charter flights from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa.

American Airlines shared its excitement over the new routes with a tweet showing a pilot holding a Cuban flag out the window of one of its planes.

The U.S. and Cuba have made many changes in the past year: reopening embassies in each others’ capitals and striking new business deals in the medical, tourism and communications fields. But the aviation agreement marks the most significant step yet in the push to restore normalized relations.

The practical effect for U.S. travelers will be an easier process to book their trips.

All travelers to and from Cuba have been using charter flights carefully monitored by the U.S.. Travelers must present their visas, identification and payment information to agents, and all travelers must certify their trip falls under one of the approved categories.

The new agreement would create a system more familiar to travelers. That may include the ability to book a trip through online and eliminate the long-standing practice of checking in four hours before a flight.

The deal follows other developments in recent months that should make traveling to, and communicating with, Cuba far easier for people in the U.S. That includes a pilot program to send mail directly between the two countries after decades of shipping items through other countries as well as the first U.S.-issued debit cards eligible for use there, easing the long-standing requirement that U.S. travelers pay for everything in cash.

The U.S. still maintains an economic embargo on Cuba, which bars most trade and travel to Cuba. Only Congress can end or alter the embargo, and Republicans have said they won’t do so until there are major changes in the government.

The aviation agreement caps off a year of change and puts the onus on Cuba to absorb moretravelers. The flood of Americans has left Havana’s hospitality industry running at “110% of capacity,” making hotels hard to find, restaurants overbooked and tour operators working overtime, said Pedro Freyre, a lawyer with the Miami-based Akerman law firm who is advising U.S. businesses interested in operating in Cuba.

With the added flights, Freyre said the Cubans will be tested even more.

“You’re running at capacity now?” he said. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Alan Gomez, USA TODAY

December 17, 2015

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