Rejecting the tourist apartheid: Weak demand prompts two U.S. airlines to cancel Cuba service

The Miami Herald

The shake-up continues in the Cuba travel business with two U.S. airlines announcing Monday that they planned to cancel their routes to the island.

Fort Lauderdale-based Silver Airways said it had made “the difficult but necessary” decision to suspend all its Cuba service on April 22. It had originally hoped to serve all nine of the Cuban cities outside Havana that the U.S. Department of Transportation had authorized for regularly scheduled flights from the United States to Cuba.

Frontier is canceling its Miami-Havana route on June 4 due to higher than anticipated costs and lower than expected demand. “Market conditions have failed to materialize there, and excess capacity has been allocated to the Florida-Cuba market,” the airline said in a statement.

Frontier launched its service to Cuba on Dec. 1, 2016 with a special introductory one-way fare of $59 on the Miami-Havana route. The low-cost carrier had planned its daily flights to and from Havana so that Frontier passengers coming from Denver and Las Vegas could make easy one-stop connections in Miami.

The Denver-based airline noted that more than 80 percent of its “new routes have succeeded over the past few years, yet circumstances sometimes prevent us from achieving our objectives.”

Last year there was a mad scramble as U.S. airlines applied to DOT for the first flight frequencies to Cuba in more than half a century. Part of the enthusiasm was based on the assumption that the travel opening that began under former President Barack Obama would continue.

But U.S. travelers still can only visit the island if they fall into 12 specific categories of travel such as family visits and those making people-to-people, humanitarian or educational trips. U.S. travel to the island is supposed to be purposeful, ruling out vacations baking on the beach like Canadian and European tourists.

President Donald Trump also has ordered a review of all Obama’s executive orders on Cuba, leaving the future of his Cuba policy still up in the air. Some of the forbidden-fruit, pent-up-demand aspect of Cuban travel that was so much in evidence in 2015 and 2016 has faded too.

“This lack of demand coupled with overcapacity by the larger airlines has made the Cuban routes unprofitable for all carriers,” Silver said in statement.

JetBlue recently decided to put smaller planes on its Cuba routes, and in mid-February American Airlines cut its daily flights to Cuba from 13 to 10. Silver, which flies out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, had already reduced frequencies on some of its Cuba routes before it decided to throw in the towel.

Silver Airways was granted flight frequencies to nine Cuban cities outside Havana and it had begun serving all but the airport in Cayo Largo, which the Transportation Security Administration hasn’t approved for operations from the United States.

“Silver has maintained from the beginning that these smaller Cuba markets — which are similar to its successful network and fleet strategy in Florida and the Bahamas — are best suited for Silver’s smaller aircraft type,” the airline said. Silver has been using 34-seat aircraft on its Cuba routes.

“While the actual total number of passengers currently traveling to and from Cuba on all carriers combined is in line with what Silver originally projected, other airlines continue to serve this market with too many flights and oversized aircraft, which has led to an increase in capacity of approximately 300 percent between the U.S. and Cuba,” said Silver.

But Silver plans to continue monitoring Cuba routes and “will consider resuming service in the future if the commercial environment changes.”

John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said he had heard that Silver is considering applying for the Miami-Havana route that Frontier is abandoning, but Silver didn’t confirm that, saying only that it would continue monitoring Cuba routes.

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