If the arc of the moral universe is long, the arc of bureaucracy is reliably longer. But as the repercussions of Obama’s historic agreement to reestablish relations with Cuba slowly resonate through government departments, US airlines are straining at the leash to be the first to take American tourists to the long-time pariah island.
In a statement to the British Newspaper The Guardian, United Airlines said they planned to start flights to Cuba from their hubs in Newark and Houston, and JetBlue also said they were “eager” to grow their presence on the island. American Airlines told the Guardian they were reviewing the changes to the government’s policy, and Southwest and Spirit airlines have reportedly also expressed interest.
The tight restrictions on prospective travellers may have been lifted, but it is still unclear how soon the first batch of tourists can expect to disembark from the first scheduled and regular commercial flights into the Cuban sunlight.
On Thursday, the US Department of Transport announced that the US government “will engage with the government of Cuba to assess our aviation relations and establish a bilateral basis for further expansion of air services,” though a spokesperson for the department told the Guardian there was not yet a timeline for this process.
Several airlines, including JetBlue and American, already run charter flights to the island. But for regular scheduled flights to begin, the two governments must first negotiate a bilateral Air Service Agreement, under the terms of a convention signed in Chicago in 1944.
“ASAs come in many shapes and forms, from very restrictive to very ‘liberalized’. The US, as a policy, pursues liberalized agreements (the “Open Skies” variety) but it is possible the Cubans may wish to impose certain restrictions on which US airlines can fly to Cuba, where they fly from and to, and how often,” said Amedeo Odoni, a professor of aeronautics at MIT who specialises in air transportation system infrastructure.
This might not be all that difficult. Cuba is already a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN body that regulates air travel. That means its airports are already subject to requirements similar to those of the US, according to Jeff Price, professor of aviation at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
There is in fact already an Air Service Agreement between the US and Cuba – but because it dates from before the embargo its language is outdated, and most of the airlines mentioned in it no longer exist.
United Airlines hold one of the flight authorities in that old agreement, having inherited the historic rights to fly US-Havana from the now-defunct Pan Am – but the Department of Transport said that “any carrier holding long-dormant US-Cuba authority would enjoy no advantage.”
However, Price believes that because Cuba is already a member of the ICAO, this process should be relatively straightforward. He said it might actually take longer for airlines to work out the contracts required with airports – for gate assignments and runway use – than for the US government to work through the bilateral agreement.
The Transport Security Administration, who inspect airports before US carriers can fly them, already work with the six airports in Cuba to which US aircraft fly charter flights, so further inspections on their part are not necessary. Unless the process is complicated by diplomatic factors, Price said, there could be an agreement in less than six months.
The question that remains is whether Cuba’s current tourist infrastructure is ready to cope with the influx of tourists from the US. While there are a few Spanish hotel chains there, almost all the infrastructure – from resorts to restaurants to buses – are government-operated.
Tyler Wetherall is a journalist and travel writer, and writes the Our Girl In Havana blog for the Huffington Post. She told the Guardian that other than the big all-inclusive resorts, tourists can stay in Casas Particulares – private homes licensed to take paying guests by the government, where the price is around $20 per night.
Because $20 is the average monthly salary in Cuba, however, Wetherall said, there is a huge market for people offering their rooms illegally. This is dangerous for the people doing it, though – if caught, they can lose their homes.
While Canadian, British and German tourists already frequent the island, Wetherall does not think the current tourist infrastructure will be able to cope with a large influx of Americans. “Something will have to change,” she said. “At the moment there aren’t the facilities.”
“If they keep the tourist industry state run, as it currently is, they’re going to have to put a lot of money into funding it. They’re going to need more space, and probably the only way of doing that is opening it up to private enterprise,” she said.
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