Oakland airport authorized for flights to Havana
Stephanie Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, June 9, 2011
In the latest sign of thawing relations between the United States and
Cuba, Oakland International Airport has been authorized to offer nonstop
flights to Havana.
The airport announced Wednesday that as soon as December it will provide
weekly charter flights to and from José Martí International Airport in
partnership with Cuba Travel Services of Long Beach.
Oakland joins eight other airports nationwide, including Chicago,
Dallas/Fort Worth and Baltimore, that were authorized in March to fly to
the communist country. Previously, only Los Angeles, Miami and New York
airports offered such service.
The United States' historically strained relationship with Cuba began
loosening in January, when the Obama administration announced that it
would relax restrictions on academic and religious travel to the island
nation. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, who pushed for the city's airport
to be authorized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to provide the
flights, has long lobbied for more open interactions between the two
"It's one step in the right direction. I think we need to fully lift the
travel ban as a major first step," she said. "Allowing airports to get a
license to get a charter flight directly into Cuba is huge for Oakland."
Tickets in October
Round-trip tickets are expected to go on sale in early October for about
$860, said Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services,
which will schedule the flights. The journey to Havana takes about 5
hours and 40 minutes; the return flight takes about 6 hours and 45 minutes.
Cuba Travel Services has yet to finalize which carriers it will use,
Zuccato said. It is in talks with a number of airlines, including Spirit
Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue, and will use aircraft that can
hold up to 160 passengers, such as a Boeing 737.
Zuccato said Cuba Travel Services partnered with the Oakland airport
because most of its would-be customers in the area reside in the East
Bay. A spokesman for San Francisco International Airport said it is not
planning to offer flights to Cuba.
The travel changes announced in January do not affect the ban on U.S.
tourism, meaning that those most interested in soaking up the sun at
Cuban beach resorts will have to wait a while longer. Most trade remains
But the new policies open possibilities for academic and religious
groups. Accredited educational institutions can now apply to operate in
Cuba under a license that authorizes students, faculty and staff to take
credit courses toward a degree, conduct graduate research and teach a
10-week course at a Cuban academic institution. Members of incorporated
religious organizations can also apply for a general license to
participate in religious activities.
Bay Area scholars who study the Caribbean and Latin America praised the
news. UC Davis operates a study-abroad program in Cuba, but UC Berkeley
and other universities canceled theirs because of the previous restrictions.
"It's not that much further than the East Coast, but because of
connections and all kinds of restrictions, it's just really a nightmare
to get there," said Laura Enriquez, a UC Berkeley sociology professor
who researches agriculture in Cuba and chairs the campus' Working Group
on Cuba. "This will make it massively easier."
The increased access to Cuba, though gradual, marks a significant step
away from the icy relationship that has existed since the Cold War, said
María Elena Díaz, an associate professor of history at UC Santa Cruz.
The Havana native has taught a class on 20th century Cuba for the past
"I think that, slowly, Cubans and North Americans are coming to the
realization that all of these restrictions are antagonistic and have not
worked," she said. "Cuba has been moving on and the United States is
staying behind. This is the moment, I think, to catch up."
Staff writer Natalie Orenstein contributed to this report. E-mail
Stephanie Lee at email@example.com.