Lack of demand: Southwest cutting service to two Cuban cities

Rapid City Journal

DALLAS | Southwest Airlines, pulling back on its service to Cuba, plans to end flights to two cities on the island in September after determining the routes aren’t sustainable, the company said last week.

Dallas-based Southwest will operate its last flights to Varadero and Santa Clara on Sept. 4. It will continue its service from Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Fla., to the island nation’s capital, Havana.

Southwest’s decision is the latest sign that U.S. airlines, which got permission to fly to Cuba last year, have been disappointed with their return on investment. Southwest joins American Airlines and JetBlue in cutting back service to Cuba, while Frontier Airlines and Silver Airways ended their Cuba flights altogether.

“Our decision to discontinue the other Cuba flights comes after an in-depth analysis of our performance over several months which confirmed that there is not a clear path to sustainability serving these markets, particularly with the continuing prohibition in U.S. law on tourism to Cuba for American citizens,” Steve Goldberg, Southwest’s senior vice president of ground operations, said in a statement.

Commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba took off for the first time in 50 years in 2016 as part of a broader push by the Obama administration to liberalize relations between the two countries.

Airlines launched dozens of daily flights to Havana and smaller cities across the island, hoping to stake a claim in a new market with the potential to grow into a major tourist draw.

About 285,000 U.S. citizens traveled to Cuba in 2016, triple the amount that did so in 2014, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

The Obama-era policy made it easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba but did not totally eliminate restrictions and challenges that made visiting the island unlike traveling to any other Caribbean market.

General tourism to the island is prohibited, with U.S. travelers having to visit under one of 12 official purposes, including educational, research or humanitarian.

Traveling to the island is likely to get even more difficult for U.S. citizens after President Donald Trump announced changes this month that will require most visitors to be part of organized tour groups.

For now, much of the traffic between the U.S. and Cuba will likely be Cuban Americans visiting friends and family on the island, a market Southwest will continue to serve with its flights from Fort Lauderdale to Havana.

The company is currently requesting a third daily flight between those two cities and is awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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