WASHINGTON – The Transportation Department tentatively approved Friday four daily and six weekly flights between the U.S. and Havana, after airlines applied for slots that rivals had surrendered.
The proposed allocation calls for:
♦American Airlines and Delta Air Lines to each get a daily flight from Miami. American had proposed to use Boeing 737-800 aircraft with 160 seats. Delta proposed to use Airbus A320 aircraft with 160 seats.
♦Southwest Airlines to get a daily flight from Fort Lauderdale. The airline proposed to use either a 737-700 with 143 seats or a 737-800 with 175 seats.
♦JetBlue Airways to get a Sunday-through-Friday flight from Fort Lauderdale and a Saturday flight from Boston. JetBlue proposed to use Airbus A320 planes with 162 seats.
♦United Airlines and Mesa Airlines to share flights Sunday through Friday from Houston. United planned to use 737-800 planes with 154 seats and Mesa, operating as United Express, planned to use Embraer 175 aircraft with 76 seats, “as economic conditions warrant,” according to the proposal.
United already provided weekly Saturday flights from Houston to Havana.
"On behalf of United Airlines, we applaud the U.S. Department of Transportation's decision to increase United service between Houston and Havana from Saturday-only to daily," Steve Morrissey, United's vice president of regulatory and policy, said Friday.
Applicants have 15 days to file objections to the distribution before the decisions become final.
ARCHIVES: Southwest Airlines launches its first flights to Havana (story continues below)
Southwest Airlines launches its first flights to Havana
More on Cuba flights:
The Obama administration restored flights to Cuba as part of a reopening of diplomatic relations for the first time in more than 50 years with the island 90 miles from Florida.
The Transportation Department set a limit of 20 daily round-trips to Havana, with more flights to other cities, when it reopened scheduled passenger service in February 2016.
The competition to serve the Caribbean destination was fierce, and all Havana slots were allocated by August 2016. But since then, with a weak market and diplomatic tensions, several airlines dropped out.
Frontier Airlines ended daily round-trips between Miami and Havana. Spirit Airlines ended twice-daily flights between Fort Lauderdale and Havana.
While the department weighed who should get those slots, Alaska Airlines ended its daily service between Los Angeles and Havana in January.
IN PICTURES: First U.S. commercial flight to Cuba since 1961 (story continues below)
First U.S. commercial flight to Cuba since 1961
Then Delta Air Lines announced that it would drop its New York JFK to Havana service from Sunday through Friday in February, while keeping its Saturday flights.
The latest allocations sought to replace those vacancies while keeping the choices competitive for travelers.
When first allocating flights to Cuba, the department said it recognized the market was still under development and sought a variety of network, low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers, with choices among airports and nonstop or connecting service.
But with the latest round of approvals, the department found ample evidence for a market between South Florida and Havana, so it sought to promote a competitive market there with two new flights from Miami and one from Fort Lauderdale, according to the 29-page decision.
The Houston choice was designed to give a broad swath of travelers from the Midwest a one-stop choice to visit Havana, particularly after the withdrawal of Alaska Airlines from providing flights from Los Angeles, according to the decision.
IN PICTURES: American Airlines begins regular Cuba flights (story continues below)
American Airline begins regular Cuba service
The Boston choice was designed to open a new gateway for interests in healthcare and biotechnology, according to the decision.
“The department tentatively believes that these allocations would better serve the public interest than would the selection of other proposals submitted in this proceeding,” said the decision from Joel Szabat, deputy assistant secretary of Transportation for aviation and international affairs.
The department rejected a request from FedEx for cargo flights with a Cessna 208 by noting that the carrier delayed proposed service from Miami to Matanzas for 17 months.
American had asked for more flights from Miami, but the department ruled that it would be more competitive to have other airlines serve the route.
And the department rejected JetBlue proposals from Tampa, New York’s JFK, and Newark because those markets already have flights.