JetBlue Airways is on the verge of becoming the second major U.S. carrier in recent months to dial back capacity on its new commercial passenger routes to Cuba.
Effective May 3, the New York-based carrier will begin operating smaller planes on routes from Fort Lauderdale and other U.S. cities to four Cuban destinations: Havana, Santa Clara, Holguin and Camaguey, a spokesman confirmed this week.
The changes are a continuing sign that the airlines that rushed to serve the Communist island after the restoration of U.S-Cuban diplomatic relations may have been too ambitious with their traffic expectations.
In December, American was the first to announce it would reduce service between Miami and Holguin, Santa Clara and Varadero to one daily flight starting Feb. 16, “to remain competitive in the market.”
Since then, regional carrier Silver Airways is reportedly planning to slash flight frequencies on some of its eight Cuba routes from Fort Lauderdale, according to the industry publication Routes Online.
In an email Wednesday, Silver spokeswoman Misty Pinson told the Sun Sentinel that the carrier typically makes seasonal adjustments “to best match demand.”
“But we remain optimistic about the future growth potential in Cuba and believe that our 34-seat aircraft is the right size aircraft for this market,” she said. “And this will also continue to grow as distribution channels open.”
Silver is still slated to launch service this year to Cayo Largo, its ninth Cuban destination from Fort Lauderdale, pending receipt of TSA approval for the Cuban airport, Pinson said.
In all, the adjustments being made by JetBlue, American and Silver will result in about a 17 percent reduction in overall seats on U.S. carriers flying to Cuba, according to an analysis of flight schedule data by Airline Weekly, an industry trade publication.
Seth Kaplan, the publication’s managing partner, asserted the recent capacity cuts point to lagging consumer demand.
Kaplan said the decline could be partly attributed to confusion among Americans about what they can and can’t do in Cuba.
For example, Americans may face hurdles using U.S.-issued credit cards in Cuba due to the lack of infrastructure. In addition, many are apprehensive about possible modifications the Trump administration might make to the liberalized travel and remittance policies introduced by the Obama Administration.
Today, travel to Cuba from the United States is limited to 12 approved categories, such as educational and religious activities, family visits and humanitarian projects. A ban on leisure tourism to Cuba remains in force as part of the long-standing U.S.-imposed trade embargo against the Communist island.
“It’s becoming clear that Cuba is going to be a long-term play, not a source of instant profits for U.S. airlines,” Kaplan said. “One thing that’s interesting is that even Havana — the marquee market — might be weaker than airlines hoped.”
The lowered expectations are reflected in the use of smaller planes and fewer flight frequencies.
For flights between Fort Lauderdale and Santa Clara, Camaguey, and Holguin, JetBlue will operate 100-passenger Embraer 190 aircraft, instead of 150-seat Airbus A320s. Its Fort Lauderdale-to-Havana flights will operate with 150-passenger Airbus A320s instead of larger ones that accommodate up to 200 people.
The change in aircraft type will result in 50 fewer seats on each flight, JetBlue spokesman Philip Stewart said in an email..
JetBlue also serves Havana from Orlando and New York.
Stewart said it is “common practice to adjust schedules and fleet type, routes based on customer preferences, especially routes that are new to the network.”
Last August, JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to offer regularly scheduled flights between the U.S. and Cuba in several decades when it launched service from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara. In November, it began service from Fort Lauderdale to Holguin, Camaguey, and Havana.
JetBlue was among several U.S. carriers that won approval last year from the U.S. Department of Transportation and Cuban government to offer regularly service several U.S. gateways as part of the push to normalize relations.
Besides JetBlue, American and Silver, the others included Alaska, Delta, Southwest, Spirit, Silver, Frontier, Alaska, Sun Country and United.
The new slate of Cuba flights, which launched between last August and December, raised concerns among longtime Cuba travel specialists in South Florida as to whether there would be enough consumer demand to justify them.
“I think airlines sort of expected the secondary markets to take time to develop, but they scratched and clawed to be able to offer every flight they could to Havana,” Kaplan said. “It turns out they might have been too ambitious.”