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.
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.
|Silver||West Palm Beach||14||–|
|Sun Country||Ft Myers||2||–|
|Sun Country||Minneapolis/St Paul||2||–|