Booking a flight to Cuba? Here's what to expect now
TODAY IN THE SKY
Seth Miller, Special for USA TODAY 7:28 a.m. EDT September 9, 2016
SANTA CLARA, Cuba -- A new era for U.S.-Cuba aviation began last week
with JetBlue Flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale to the Cuban city of Santa
Clara. The historic flight marked the resumption of regular, non-charter
passenger service between the countries for the first time more than 50
It's all expected to ease the process for travelers on both sides of the
Straits of Florida, with "regularly scheduled" airline service now an
option. Previously, customers eligible to go to Cuba had to rely on
charter-only options that were restrictive, expensive and cumbersome to
JetBlue Flight 387 flight served as something of a test run for both the
Cuban airports and the U.S. airlines that are adding regular service to
them. Service will ramp up slowly, eventually building to approximately
90 daily flights covering nine destinations by late November.
It's Havana that will likely be the real test as to whether Cuba's
airports – and U.S. airlines – are up to the challenge of the spike in
travel from U.S. passengers. But the Havana flights -- which will add 20
more daily flights to the U.S.-Cuba schedule -- won't begin until late
November and December.
For now, that leaves the spotlight squarely on Cuba's "other" airports,
where the build-up is already underway. Silver Airways launched its
first service a day after JetBlue's inaugural flight. American Airlines'
first Cuba flight commenced Wednesday (Sept. 7), with additional
frequencies and destinations launching though Sunday (Sept. 11).
Southwest, Frontier and Sun Country also will begin flying to Cuban
airports other than Havana later this year.
But for the three airlines already flying regular flights there –
JetBlue, American and Silver – each already have operated charter
flights to Cuba in the past, experience that positions them well for
their new scheduled services. The carriers already know how to
coordinate with Empresa Cubana de Aeropuertos y Servicios Aeronáuticos
(ECASA) -- the government-owned company which oversees aviation in Cuba,
including air traffic control, airport operations, passenger handling
and aviation safety.
Most passengers will not notice these challenges, focusing instead on
securing the correct paperwork for travel to Cuba. Visiting as a tourist
remains prohibited under U.S. law; travelers must certify that they meet
one of the 12 defined categories. They range from educational and sports
trips to cultural immersion and support for the Cuban people. The
journey also requires Cuban-issued travel insurance as well as proper
entry documents from Cuban authorities. The types of entry documents
needed vary by the type of trip.
American and JetBlue -- the two big airlines now flying to Cuba – each
approaches these paperwork requirements differently. Both include
required travel insurance in the price of tickets. The processes diverge
from there, however.
JetBlue allows travelers to digitally sign the required U.S.
government affidavit online. It also sells the tourist card for $50 to
eligible customers at the airport check-in counter. Passengers receive
one free checked bag (up to 50 pounds and 62 linear inches) with all
tickets to Cuba.
American is working with its long-time charter partner – Cuba Travel
Services -- to ensure the paperwork is properly handled, though
passengers remain responsible for acquiring the necessary documents and
approvals. Both American and JetBlue allow award bookings on the new
flights to Cuba; American does not yet have them available online while
JetBlue does. Silver Airways does not offer a loyalty program.
Upon arrival at Cuban destinations other than Havana, travelers can
expect to find airport terminals sized for the capacity and frequency of
the new flights though not necessarily well appointed.
Most U.S. airlines flying to Cuba are using single-aisle jets holding
150 to 160 passengers. Silver is flying smaller tubroprops.
In Cuba, most airport terminals are sized to handle larger twin-aisle
aircraft that bring in higher passenger and luggage loads. The
immigration hall, check-in and departures areas are all well suited to
process this flow. Amenities in the terminal typically include some form
of currency conversion, duty free shopping and stores selling souvenirs.
Snack bar selections are more limited, but are adequate for the number
of passengers the terminals currently handle. Wi-Fi is available in the
terminals but – as in the rest of the country – it requires login
credentials that can be purchased from most tourist hotels. In September
2016 the price was 2 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) – about $2 U.S. – for
one hour of access.
Perhaps the best news for the airlines is that they have time to grow in
to their new scheduled Cuban operations at the smaller airports. Most
airlines' schedules for cities other than Havana include just one or two
flights daily at each destination.
The real test may come at the end of the year when access to Havana
opens. U.S. airlines competed vigorously for those flights, easily
filling the 20 daily flights allocated for U.S. carriers seeking to fly
to the capital city. That will bring a crush of flights, presenting far
greater challenges for Havana's Jose Marti International Airport.
The terminal currently used for the U.S. charter flights is large but
offers limited amenities. It is unclear how well it might handle
multiple overlapping arrivals and departures throughout the day, which
will be the case once U.S. airlines reach their combined limit of 20
daily flights. That's on top of charter trips, which are expected to
continue (though likely with shrinking frequencies).
With less than 90 days until the Havana service begins, there remain
challenges to work out as U.S. airlines ready to welcome new customers
Seth Miller is the New York-based author of the Wandering Aramean travel
blog and a contributor to Ben Mutzabaugh's Today in the Sky blog. You
also can follow Seth on Twitter at @WandrMe and on Instagam at @wandrme.
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