Delta Air Lines Plans To Apply For Direct Flights To Cuba

Feb 24, 2016

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines said it plans to apply for direct flights from Atlanta to Havana, Cuba, before the application deadline on March 2. 

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx recently signed a deal with Cuban leaders to restart commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba.

Bidding Process

Suzi Emmerling with the U.S. Department of Transportation said 20 daily roundtrip flights to Havana will be up for grabs. This will also include 10 from each of the other nine international airports in Cuba, bringing the total number of roundtrips from the U.S. to 110.

"DOT’s principal objective is to select the carrier(s) that will best serve the public interest," Emmerling said in an email. "In making this determination DOT considers a number of factors, such as the city-pair markets proposed, the proposed frequency of service, the capacity to be offered, the applicant’s ability to integrate a new route into its network, and an applicant’s ability to enter the market quickly.  The department also considers the impact that a route award will have on the overall level of competition in a particular market or region."

Charter Flights

Amanda Mattingly is a senior advisor and Latin America expert for business risk intelligence firm the Arkin Group. 

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed visited Havana last year with other city leaders in an effort to promote Atlanta as a future business gateway for Cuba.
Credit Michell Eloy / WABE

She said Delta Air Lines is at a disadvantage for being selected as one of the carriers compared to airlines based in New York, New Jersey or Florida, which have large Cuban-American populations, but there is still enough interest here. 

“Within the business community, academia and journalists, people are very eager for an easier process of getting to Cuba, because up until now without any commercial flights available, you have to go through a charter flight and that can be a very cumbersome process," Mattingly said.

Charter flights to Cuba leave from only a few cities on select airlines, like American Airlines. Delta Air Lines plans to offer charter flights starting in April, according to a report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

Visiting Cuba

Mattingly visited Cuba for the third time last April with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation says general tourist travel to Cuba is still not allowed, but you can now more easily apply for a license from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control to travel and spend money there legally. A general license would allow travelers to visit Cuba to see family or for 11 other purposes like humanitarian work and business travel with restrictions.

She said she expects the flights will be mostly for U.S. citizens to travel between the two countries since Cubans face greater travel restrictions coming to the U.S.

“The [U.S. government] only issues some 20,000 visas, so the Cubans trying to get to the United States, it’s a complicated process for them, which is why you’ve got thousands right now waiting in Costa Rica to try to get to Mexico, so they can then go over the border,” Mattingly said. “It’s not as easy for Cubans to just say, ‘Oh well, I want to go visit Atlanta and then come home.’”

World's Busiest Airport

"Even though we don’t have a large Cuban-American population, there's enough people interested certainly from a business, economic exchange, potential trade, education exchange perspective that I think there would be enough people to support it,” Mattingly said. “And of course, our airport is a huge hub and lots of people travel through Atlanta to their final destinations, many of which are in Latin America."

Delta Air Lines said in a press release it hopes to resume commercial passenger service to Havana, which it discontinued in 1961.

“I think it’s another development in the normalization of relations between our two countries, which is really historic and significant,” Mattingly said.

Emmerling said she expects a final decision on which airlines get the routes will be made this summer.