A Deeper Look at Which Airlines Were Chosen to Fly to Havana

Government Regulation, HAV - Havana

The news has been out for awhile, so you may have already seen the headlines. Pretty much every real airline that wanted to fly to Havana got some rights to fly there when the Department of Transportation (DOT) doled out its awards. But only one airline got everything it asked for… Spirit. If that sounds odd, it’s really just because Spirit was the only airline that made a realistic request. Everyone else asked for the stars and the moon, and the DOT had to sift through the madness. After looking at how this all went down, I thought it was worth a deeper look into who wanted what, who got what, and if any of this makes sense.

The awards for flights outside of Havana were easy. Every airline got everything it wanted. There just weren’t enough airlines that cared about those routes to even reach the cap. But Havana, well that was a different story. The agreement with Cuba allowed for 140 flights a week (20 per day) each way. When the dust settled, there were requests in for a whopping 384 flights, nearly 55 per day. DOT had to whittle that down. You can see the full chart showing who got what at the bottom of this post.

The requests were largely focused on Florida, where the vast majority of Cuban immigrants live. For the most part, DOT try to divvy these up proportionally to how the requests came in. Only New York City airports got more than you might expect, primarily because of the number of airlines requesting to fly there. Here’s how things went down.

Havana Flight Awards

Surely You Must Be Serious
Both Eastern and Dynamic asked for flights, and the DOT basically laughed at them. Neither of them are operating scheduled flights today and the chances of them being able to be ready within 90 days of the award being made final (the deadline set for every airline here) are slim to none. So the DOT just threw these out.

Then there was Sun Country, an airline which asked for a couple of weekly flights to a couple of places. Apparently, the DOT was not impressed.

Sun Country, which filed no pleadings subsequent to its application, failed to provide a persuasive basis on the record for demonstrating why its less-than-daily service proposals at Fort Myers and Minneapolis/St. Paul should prevail over the proposals of other carriers that were more fully developed throughout the record.

So, ahem, that didn’t work out so well for the airline.

Prejudice Against the Tiny
Next on the list of airlines which got nothing… Silver. Now, Silver did clean up in getting awarded routes to all kinds of places outside of Havana, but again, that’s because nobody else wanted them. With its fleet of small turboprops, the DOT decided Silver shouldn’t make the cut.

While it proposed to serve markets in Florida that wouldn’t get service to Cuba otherwise (West Palm Beach, Jacksonville, etc.), without larger airplanes, the DOT felt it would be wasting precious authorities on airplanes that only held 34 people. Seeya, Silver.

With these guys out of the way, it was time to figure out which remaining airlines deserved which flights.

Party In the City Where the Heat is On
With most Cubans living in Florida, it was obvious that Florida should get the bulk of the service. But how to divvy it up? The first focus was on South Florida where more Cubans live than anywhere else. In particular, Miami is the place to be. Sure enough, three airlines got flights there with three more up the road in Ft Lauderdale. The DOT wanted to get everyone in on the action.

It wasn’t surprising at all that American picked up flights here. It had hoped for 10 daily flights, but I don’t think it seriously thought it would get that. Nor should it have. Instead it got 4 daily which seems much more reasonable. Frontier also picked up one daily flight. How did that happen? Well, the DOT wanted low cost competition, and Frontier was the only low cost carrier crazy enough to fly out of high cost Miami. Delta also picked up a Miami flight and that was more surprising since it has absolutely no feed and minimal loyalty. I’m sure the DOT just wanted to provide competition to American, but like Delta’s short-lived Miami-London flight, I expect this to go away quickly.

Ft Lauderdale is further from the Cuban population, but that’s where the low cost service is. Southwest walked away with 2 daily flights (it wanted 6), Spirit got 2 as well, and JetBlue found itself with 2 except on Saturdays where it only gets one. Kudos to Spirit for being the only airline to get everything it wanted. I actually bet Spirit will do well carrying people to visit friends and relatives at cheap fares.

A Token for the Rest of the State
With around a million Cuban Americans in South Florida, everything else pales in comparison. But Tampa and Orlando are still top 5 when it comes to Cuban communities in the US, and so they each got a little action.

JetBlue gets one daily flight from Orlando while Southwest will run one from Tampa. Each of those airlines had asked for both cities, so DOT apparently decided to split the difference where each had a stronger presence. What’s interesting is that Delta was shut out on its Orlando bid. I would have thought that would have made more sense than Miami, but Delta had listed Miami at a higher preference, so that won out.

New York, New York (Say It Twice, Because It Comes In Second)
After South Florida, the New York City area is actually the largest place for Cuban Americans. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, but because of that, NYC did pull down some pretty good service. JFK gets two daily flights, one from Delta and the other from JetBlue. Meanwhile, Newark gets one daily from United. That was United’s only attempt at daily service, so it’s no surprise that it won.

The Lone West Coast Presence
On the West Coast, the LA area has the largest Cuban population (fourth overall just behind Tampa and ahead of Orlando). But while a flight from Orlando or Tampa to Havana is a quick hop that doesn’t require much aircraft time, the long haul from the West Coast is far more costly. Still, several airlines wanted in, and Alaska walked away the winner with one daily flight. I suppose that’s good because beyond its own robust network, it can also get feed from American and Asian airlines. But this one still seems like quite the stretch. It’s hard to imagine how this route is going to have enough demand to keep an airplane profitable every day.

Hubs Get the Remains
The rest of the cats and dogs have one thing in common. They’re all hubs. American snagged a daily Charlotte flight, Delta grabbed one in Atlanta, and United picked up a Saturday-only Houston flight. The point here? It’s not about the local market; it’s about funneling demand from elsewhere in the country to come via a hub.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? DOT did what it should have done and focused on the markets where Cuban-Americans live. Though there will be some tourism, it’ll take years and years before that fully develops. In the near term it’s all about families going back and forth. For that reason, it’s those Miami flights that I expect to perform best of all.

For the rest of these, I think there’s a real case of inflated expectations. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Silver pick up some routes to Havana from secondary Florida cities once other airlines fail. (Silver, in turn, should have plenty of aircraft once all those secondary Cuban markets fail.)

I find this fascinating to watch. We know very little about what demand will look like, yet a decision had to be made based on the information that’s out there. Anyone want to take bets on how many routes end up being abandoned within a year of launch? I’m going with at least three that we’ll see up for grabs again soon.

And now, here’s that full chart.

Weekly Flights
Airlines Gateway Requested Awarded
Alaska Los Angeles 14 7
American Miami 70 28
American Charlotte 7 7
American Dallas/Ft Worth 7
American Los Angeles 1
American Chicago/O’Hare 1
Delta New York/JFK 7 7
Delta Atlanta 7 7
Delta Miami 14 7
Delta Orlando 7
Dynamic New York/JFK 3
Dynamic Chicago/O’Hare 4
Dynamic Los Angeles 4
Eastern Miami 7
Frontier Miami 21 7
Frontier Denver 7
JetBlue Ft Lauderdale 28 13
JetBlue New York/JFK 14 7
JetBlue Orlando 14 7
JetBlue Tampa 14
JetBlue Boston 7
Silver West Palm Beach 14
Silver Ft Myers 7
Silver Key West 5
Silver Jacksonville 2
Silver Ft Lauderdale 7
Southwest Ft Lauderdale 42 14
Southwest Tampa 14 7
Southwest Orlando 7
Spirit Ft Lauderdale 14 14
Sun Country Ft Myers 2
Sun Country Minneapolis/St Paul 2
United Newark 7 7
United Houston/Intercon 1 1
United Washington/Dulles 1
United Chicago/O’Hare 1

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39 comments on “A Deeper Look at Which Airlines Were Chosen to Fly to Havana

    1. Cubana will need to pass the restrictions on safety imposed by the US Government authorities on all airlines that operate to the United States. There are many countries that do not meet these guidelines and their airlines cannot operate to or over US airspace. The Philippines just came off this list a few years ago.

  1. I’m really surprised that Chicago didn’t get a flight. I had several Cuban-American coworkers and acquaintances when I lived in that area.

  2. Atlanta makes sense because it’s Delta’s closest hub to Havana, but Charlotte?! What can American serve through Charlotte that it can’t serve through Miami?

    1. About 50+ additional markets one-stop via CLT than are available at MIA. This flight will cater to connectivity throughout the US, while MIA will have a high level of O&D with some connections as well.

    2. From the docket Cranky linked to: “American states that its proposed daily Havana service from Charlotte will connect with 68 cities, including 34 not connected through Miami.” And ChuckMO is probably right that there are a bunch more cities served from CLT but not MIA that just don’t happen to have good connections to the proposed HAV flight.

      MIA is fairly limited in domestic US service. AA obviously serves the big cities, but not so much the mid-sized and small ones.

      1. Sure, 50% of the Charlotte cities are not served from Miami, but these are the smaller cities. For most people who could go through Charlotte, a Miami connection (with more frequent service) would make more sense. If American had the 10 Miami flights they requested, then a Charlotte flight might be the next best thing. But with only 4 from Miami, it looks to me like a 5th frequency from Miami would be more valuable, to both the airline and the public.

        Indeed, the same docket above shows that Charlotte was American’s 8th choice, after 7 Miami flights. I’m not clear on why DOT bumped up the Charlotte application, given that Miami itself offers many of the same connecting opportunities.

        1. Well, the Secretary of DOT is the former mayor of Charlotte. He is smarter than Scott Kirby. Though I am being mildly critical here, I do appreciate the Obama admin doing the right thing and opening up relations with Cuba again.

  3. Overall it still seems like a ton of flights. No way all those flights will be filled with leisure passengers going to visit family. I think a lot of airlines are wishfully thinking the business market in Havana will pick up big time.

    As for the beach vacation crowd going to Cuba how many flights originate from Canada? I’d say it’s fair to extrapolate the US could support 10x that number based on population difference…that is once American’s are convinced to skip their trusted Mexico, DR, etc. and try something new for their winter vacations.

    My sense is that lots of these will fail quickly and the market will stabilize in 5-10 years.

  4. Los Angeles has had charter service to Cuba before, but it wasn’t everyday. A once or twice a week service may have been a better option. Also just how many people from Asia go to Cuba now, so connecting options may not be there.

    Low cost carriers should do well from South Florida since travel time to Cuba is so short, anyone will be able to put of with the type service and crammped seating.

  5. Great post and details.

    A little surprised about UA and not getting an IAD flight. Seems like there would be some official travelers to use such a flight, but maybe later?

  6. All of these flights are going to be a blood-bath, and the airlines will bleed money like crazy. There is simply no way Cuba is ready, from both an economical and infrastructure standpoint, to handle the influx of all these flights. I predict most carriers will scale back the daily service and try to come up with a strategy to squat on these authorities until Cuba demand picks up. Grab the popcorn!

  7. Cranky Flier | A Deeper Look at Which Airlines Were Chosen to Fly to HavanaI noticed that Alaska will begin the flight in Seattle.

  8. “Both Eastern and Dynamic asked for flights, and the DOT basically laughed at them. Neither of them are operating scheduled flights today and the chances of them being able to be ready within 90 days of the award being made final (the deadline set for every airline here) are slim to none. So the DOT just threw these out.”

    Eastern is currently operating charter flights to Cuba and it is most of the revenue the airline is earning are from them. They are currently operating less than daily service to Havana, but operate additional flights to other cities like Santa Clara and Holquin out of Miami.

  9. spirit will probably do well. the price will be right and it’s a short flight which makes it tolerable even with their cramped seat pitch.

  10. Agreed that I can see Spirit doing very well on the flights it got.

    Brett, any speculation on the initial (and, once things get settled in a year or two, the “right”) gauge of planes for the MIA/FLL – HAV routes? Given the short (~200 nm) distance, I wonder if the B717 might be a good plane for these routes, a la Hawaii inter-island flights, but I don’t keep track of who has extra planes of each type in their fleets.

    One topic you didn’t touch on is ferry service. Sure, it is ~250 statute miles from Miami (with proposals also coming in for service from Key West, Tampa, and other cities), but one company (CubaKat) is promoting upcoming 3-hour ferry service between FL & Cuba (“expected to start spring/summer 2016”, though news articles suggest the first ferry service may not start until late 2016 or early 2017), while other companies have been talking of redeye trips between Miami and Havana.

    I realize that Cuba has essentially no tourist infrastructure, but a 30 knot ferry from Key West could reach Cuba in <3 hours, putting making day trips to Cuba (and certainly weekend trips) within reach in a few years if the right tourist/ferry infrastructure manages to fall into place. I just hope Cuba is ready for the drunken spring breakers that will eventually descend upon it.

    Ferry service from FL to Cuba will be an interesting topic to watch, in that if/when it gains critical mass it may help to put some downward pressure on air prices, at least for the most price sensitive customers.

    1. Kilroy – I believe if you read through the filings, the airlines said what kind of planes they’d use. (Not small ones, except for Silver.)

  11. Fearless prediction: On a slow news day within a few weeks of service to Cuba starting we will see “Chicken Little”-style coverage from CNN showing Americans taking days to clear Cuban Customs and Immigration, or sleeping on park benches for lack of available hotel rooms, etc.

    A while after that, we’ll get the mandatory “pretty white American girl next door hurt/robbed” story.

    Not to be a cynic or a pessimist, and I hope these things don’t happen, but cable news is cable news, and they are going to use Cuba coverage to get eyeballs any way they can.

  12. Personally I don’t see that many Cuban-Americans wanting to go back even for a visit. There is a reason they left Cuba and that reason hasn’t changed so far. Some of the older ones might want a one time trip to relive the old days but I doubt most of there childern who were born in the USA would be all that interested. I don’t see the airlines making much of a profit on any of these routes which means they won’t want to continue them for very long.

  13. I could be very wrong but I just dont see the demand being that huge. I mean American got awarded 4 DAILY flights from MIA alone?? I just dont see it…….

  14. This is the departure schedule per MIA’s Flight Departure Information ( http://webvids.miami-airport.com/webfids/) for Wednesday, July 13, 2016 MIA-Havana:

    American Airlines AAL9442 B738 Scheduled Wed 07:30AM EDT
    American Airlines AAL9448 B738 Scheduled Wed 08:00AM EDT
    Aruba ARU254 A320 Scheduled Wed 08:00AM EDT
    Eastern EAL3141 B738 Scheduled Wed 9:00AM EDT
    Swift Air SWQ503 B734 Scheduled Wed 09:51AM EDT
    American Airlines AAL9450 B738 Scheduled Wed 12:30PM EDT
    Eastern EAL252 B738 Scheduled Wed 1:00PM EDT
    Eastern EAL3145 B738 Scheduled Wed 2:00PM EDT

    Now those Charter flights listed above are on 150+ seat aircraft that usually go out pretty full. There may be more added for the afternoon as the flights are not posted more than 12 hours in advance. So the demand is there for the number of people who fly to Cuba out of Miami.

    Currently IBC, World Atlantic, and Sun Country also run charters out of Miami to Havana as well as to other cities in Cuba as well – Holquin, Santa Clara, Camaguey, and Cienfuegos to name a few.

  15. Seems like United got the short end relative to the others. They should have gotten at least 1 from either IAD or ORD in lieu of AA’s CLT run. And why did they only request 1 weekly from IAH? That turns out to be the only mid-continent feeder airport between LA and Atlanta. I bet they would have asked for daily if they knew they would be shut out of Dulles and O’Hare.

  16. The most notable aspect of the route awards is that the DOT is implementing in the S. Florida to Cuba market what has happened in the larger US-Caribbean/northern Latin America market over the past 10 years: the market is heavily divided between once-dominant American and a host of other carriers from the two largest S. Florida airports – MIA and FLL. There are no less than 6 carriers flying just between MFL and HAV and the numbers really don’t go down much when the non-Havana cities are factored in.

    The very reason why Delta asked for and can sustain MIA-HAV flights is because the market is heavily concentrated in S. Florida. AA argued that the market is so heavily concentrated in Miami which is precisely why DL and F9 will both be able to survive solely based on local traffic. MIA-Havana flights don’t need connections. The screen shot of Miami departures is proof. Charters today are not filled with connections; they are filled with local traffic.

    It is equally noteworthy that AA chose to focus all of its efforts on protecting Miami while other carriers – notably JetBlue and Delta obtained routes in multiple cities that have top 10 numbers of Cuban-Americans. B6 and DL both have NYC and S. Florida flights while B6 has central Florida and DL has Atlanta – which is a top 10 Cuban-America population as well as being a massive hub.

    Cuba on a narrowbody from S. Florida is a far different market and cost to operate than to Europe against not only American but also its joint venture partner British Airways. And since London has been mentioned, the Miami-LHR route was due to required divestiture for AA/BA to get joint venture approval. Delta has successfully used the strategy of obtaining slots at LHR at no acquisition cost via divestitures from the AA merger and joint venture partner and has increased its slot portfolio at LHR thru that strategy. All Delta has to do is operate the flights at a smaller loss than they would have had to spend to acquire the slot and they have justified the cost of operating the flight from a divested slot.

    Cuba is about the DOT implementing a strategy that heavily divides the market and especially S. Florida between multiple carriers and, for the first time in years, adds not just one but two US carriers from AA’s Miami hub itself to what could become a major destination in Latin America.

    Cuba will be one of the most heavily divided markets in Latin America with service by just about every large jet US airline.

  17. From what I understand, tourists aren’t going to be able to visit Cuba yet. There are 12 categories of allowed visitors.

    1. A couple of the categories are vague enough to let tourists slip through, especially since enforcement is likely to be minimal.

  18. a couple notes based on the comments above
    1. Charter flights were not allowed from all cities; MIA, NYC and LAX were some of them. Carriers who had hubs there had an advantage in pursuing the charter business but the traffic that airlines carried as charters is not predictive of how scheduled service will work. The DOT opened scheduled service to all cities and tried to distribute service to all carriers.
    2. There is not unlimited travel between Cuba and the US and won’t be anytime soon.
    3. The Cuba-US route awards add as much capacity as exists in much larger markets such as to Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica – which are established markets and where there are no visa restrictions. The effort it will take to fill all of the capacity awarded to Cuba can’t be underemphasized.
    4 Cities like Chicago didn’t get service because of how the airlines prioritized those cities in their route applications. United could have asked for and probably won more service but they asked for a lot of Saturday only service; the route awards prioritized daily service so United got the only daily service route it asked for via EWR. AA heavily concentrated its route request priorities around its largest hubs
    5. Delta and JetBlue are the only airlines that got 3 or more routes from 3 cities. Both went with the approach of more service from more cities rather than a large concentration in one or two cities.

  19. On their requests, where did JetBlue and Southwest rank Tampa and Orlando? I had expected these awards to be reversed, as JetBlue has a good position with the Cuban-American community in Tampa from the current charters, and Southwest would be better positioned than JetBlue to fill any surplus Orlando seats with connecting passengers.

    And the Frontier run from MIA still doesn’t make sense – while there might be some preference for MIA from the local Cuban-American traffic, FLL isn’t that far away. DL is going to have at least some loyalists in MIA from sheer size.

    1. The Frontier flight makes sense to me. Depending on the flight time they choose, they can feed it from LGA, ORD, PHL (or even ATL or LAS) or more than one of those. I’d guess most likely from DEN – there is a lot of disappointment in Denver that Frontier wasn’t awarded DEN-HAV.

  20. One perspective I see misreading is that of long-term airline investment in HAV. While one or two of these awarded operations may disappear, airline management teams likely understand that getting in now at the initial giveaway is the best way to ensure you are in and established prior to the liberalizing of relations a few years down the road.

    1. > airline management teams likely understand that getting in now at the initial giveaway is the best way to ensure you are in and established prior to the liberalizing of relations a few years down the road.

      Agreed. I would suggest that another factor is that there are likely to be some pretty unique lessons to be learned operating in Cuba, as far as the infrastructure, how to get things down on the ground, etc etc, and that airline managers know that the sooner they learn those lessons, the better. Best to get in now while things are still a bit fuzzy and all US airlines are in the same boat (in terms of being able to blame it on the poor tourist infrastructure etc, and all being similarly affected), then be late to the game and get in to Cuba after other airlines have already had a chance to figure things out and to get their Cuba ops running smoothly.

  21. There was an interesting change to the awards last Friday. Frontier’s original application (which admittedly was slightly complicated) wanted to route the regional Cuba flights through MIA, with the exception of Varadero.

    The DOT mis-read the application and granted Frontier flights to regional Cuba – Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey and Santa Clara – as non-stops from ORD and PHL, which is what Frontier was trying to avoid.

    The DOT said that Frontier’s application was “unclear” and there must have been a discussion because a final an order issued on Friday. The DOT has now granted Frontier’s original application, that the flights will be one-stops through MIA. This means that Frontier will now have 4 flights to Cuba from MIA.

    It is my understanding that the flights to Varadero/Matanzas from PHL and ORD will remain as (Saturday) non-stops.

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