Cuba Beckons, but U.S. Airlines and Passengers Face Hurdles
As regular flights get under way, carriers cope with incompatible
technical systems and travelers will find most wireless devices and
credit cards won’t work
By SCOTT MCCARTNEY
Sept. 7, 2016 1:37 p.m. ET
Just a short hop from Florida, flying to Cuba should be easy. But
restarting scheduled airline service after 55 years has been anything
but a milk run for U.S. airlines.
Regular flights won’t exactly be normal for U.S. passengers, either.
Just as Cuban society often appears frozen in time to Americans, so,
too, will airline service. Self-service and advance check-in are foreign
concepts, at least for now. Long airport lines and longer waits for
luggage have plagued charter service to the island. Getting through
immigration can be tedious and eligibility requirements complicated.
But U.S. airlines say they are trying, in effect, to stage a service
revolution, and they are confident they can overcome obstacles such as
some technical systems that aren’t compatible and export constraints on
some vital passenger service encrypted software.
“It won’t be a fabulous experience, but it won’t be a poor experience,”
says Peter Cerda, regional vice president at the International Air
Transport Association, who has worked closely with Cuban authorities and
U.S. airlines. “Sooner or later, the technology that we take for granted
now…will have to be put in place in Cuba.”
Commercial ties between the U.S. and Cuba started germinating after
President Obama announced in 2014 increased travel under the longtime
embargo against the Castro government. JetBlue flew the first regularly
scheduled flight between the two countries on Aug. 31, and this week
American will begin flying to five of the six Cuban cities it will serve.
Southwest, Delta, United, Spirit, Frontier, Alaska and Florida-based
Silver Airways all have received rights to fly between the two
countries. Cuba’s airline, Cubana, is exploring partnerships with U.S.
airlines rather than flying to the U.S. One open issue: whether U.S.
companies or individuals who lost property and businesses after the
Castro revolution would try to seize Cubana planes to repay claims.
Restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba have been eased but not
eliminated. Americans can only go to Cuba if the purpose of the trip
falls into one of 12 categories, such as educational or religious
activities. But travelers can self-certify, and it isn’t clear how much
checking, if any, the U.S. government will conduct. Tourism isn’t one of
the 12 categories, and regulations prohibit excess free time or
recreation in schedules, so simply saying you plan to vacation on an
island with pristine beaches and four-star resorts frequented by
Europeans, Canadians and others won’t qualify.
Even so, travelers have to buy a Cuban tourist visa, as well as health
insurance that will cover them in Cuba, both of which airlines can sell.
The cost of the tourist visa is $50. Some airlines are adding a $25
surcharge to tickets for the Cuban health insurance. Others are using
contractors to help passengers meet requirements.
Despite the complexity, many airline officials expect travel to surge,
at least to Havana, with five decades of pent-up curiosity, history and
family ties. Inexpensive airfares may help—prices have been starting at
around $200 round-trip.
Both countries have pushed hard to cut red tape for airlines, and
launching new flights hasn’t been as difficult as many airline
executives thought. Cuba has robust air service from 48 international
airlines and many systems at airports are compatible with what airlines
But there will be differences. Airlines say they likely will carry a
mechanic and security official onboard flights to Cuba for some time,
and may pack some spare parts on flights as well. Some haven’t been able
to set up offices yet in Cuba, let alone sell tickets there.
American shipped containers to Cuba by sea with signs, computers,
printers, bag sizers and stanchions—all the things you’d see at an
airport. It says it will be able to have separate check-in lines for
premium and regular customers. Southwest has brought in equipment from
non-U.S. countries and is still trying to find office space at Cuban
airports; it says its flights to Havana, Varadero and Santa Clara may go
on sale soon with service beginning later this year.
American, JetBlue and others have been flying charters to Cuba; American
for 25 years. Last year, charter companies hired American to operate
more than 1,000 flights into Cuba. Still, scheduled service is different
and there have been many legal questions to resolve since the embargo is
still in place, airlines say, such as whether U.S. banks can handle
transactions involving Cuba or insurers could pay accident claims to Cubans.
Exporting computers to Cuba that have encrypted software to protect
passenger information requires special permission. Hand-held devices
like bag-tag scanners often need chips from Canada or other countries
because U.S. wireless devices won’t work. Most U.S. credit cards won’t
work in Cuba, either, so baggage fees may not be collected on U.S.-bound
“Cuba has unique challenges, and we anticipate they will be robust
during the early operations but overcome in time,” says Gary Bunce,
Delta’s assistant general counsel.
Airlines that are further along say Cuban officials have been quick to
accommodate U.S. airlines and are putting a lot of resources to make the
new air service successful from the start.
Training Cuban airport workers—all government employees—has been
surprisingly easy, airlines say. Workers assigned to handle U.S. flights
have worked with international airlines. American says its 210 Cuban
trainees have averaged more than 20 years of industry experience, and
all have passed training so far.
“I thought it was going to be more challenging than it’s been,” says
Galo Beltran, American’s Cuba country manager, who will be the airline’s
lone employee living in Cuba. “Everything we asked for, we have gained
Nine small airports in provinces around the country may actually be
better prepared for an influx of new passengers than Havana. U.S.
airline service is starting first at those outlying airports. Havana
flights won’t launch until late November at the earliest.
The international terminal at Havana’s José Martí International Airport
gets high marks but is already crowded. Negotiations are under way,
airlines say, but at least some U.S. airlines will likely have to use an
old charter terminal until new buildings can be constructed.
“The international terminal is very impressive. The charter terminal I
would characterize as very modest,” says Dave Harvey, managing director
of business development at Southwest. “You do wonder if that structure
will be able to handle all the customers going in there.”
Cuban officials say they are undertaking an airport modernization and
expansion program. At a news conference in Havana last week, they noted
that their airports meet international security and safety standards.
Cuban officials in Washington, D.C., and the civil aviation authority in
Havana didn’t respond to email and phone requests for comment.
Airlines say Cuban airports typically have long runways to accommodate
large Russian aircraft. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration
has certified all Cuban airports U.S. airlines will serve.
Cuban airports are well-run, American says. Every time American has
conducted an audit of fueling services, for example, the Cubans have
gotten perfect scores, says American senior vice president Art Torno.
“They are very utilitarian and very functional. The bells and whistles
will come. In five to 10 years we’ll see a huge transformation,” he says.
Source: Cuba Beckons, but U.S. Airlines and Passengers Face Hurdles –