Tag Archives: Flights to Cuba

Another one: JetBlue to trim Cuba capacity as airlines adjust to market demand

Sun Sentinel

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.”

More tourists for Castro, less food for Cubans

Cuba’s Surge in Tourism Keeps Food Off Residents’ Plates

The New York Times

In Viñales, a lush valley about 100 miles from Havana, cabdrivers are charging stranded foreigners $10 to sleep in the back of their taxis.

In Varadero, a popular beach town, tour groups are being rerouted to resorts two hours away, which Americans are not really supposed to be visiting. And upon arrival in Havana, tourists sometimes face five-hour delays, because the airport lacks the mobile staircases needed to disembark and the conveyor belts to process luggage.

“It’s funny, it’s like Americans are rushing to Cuba before Americans rush to Cuba,” said Tony Pandola, a tour guide here.

The sharp increase in American travel to Cuba is putting a strain on private and state businesses on the island, leading to some shortages and an abrupt rise in prices that will only steepen as more Americans take advantage of relaxed travel regulations, industry experts said.

State hotels have already increased prices by nearly one-third, as demand for lodging far exceeds Cuba’s ability to meet it.

Continue reading More tourists for Castro, less food for Cubans

Flights from Cuba pose security threat


The Post and Courrier

In pursuing his historic opening of relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama has frequently pushed legal and political boundaries. Now congressional Republicans are up in arms about another such initiative: an airline travel agreement they say exposes the United States to dangerous security gaps at Cuban airports.

Congressional committees charged with overseeing the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration have engaged in a months-long feud with the administration over security vulnerabilities at 10 Cuban airports that have begun direct flights to the United States. The lawmakers say the lapses increase the risk of terrorists, criminals, drugs and spies entering the United States.
The security dogs that can be seen at Cuban airports are “mangy street dogs” that were fraudulently posed as trained animals, the TSA’s top official for the Caribbean, Larry Mizell, told congressional officials behind closed doors in March, according to these officials. He also told them that there are few body scanners at the Cuban airports and that those in place are Chinese-made versions for which no reliability data exists.

When direct commercial flights began in August, federal air marshals were not allowed on them by order of the Cuban government. No TSA personnel can be stationed at the Cuban airports. All of the local airport employees for the U.S. carriers are being hired, vetted and paid by the Cuban regime, lawmakers said, and the United States has not been given information that resulted from their vetting or how it was conducted.

“In an effort to secure Obama’s legacy on Cuba, they rushed to get it done without doing the proper due diligence,” said Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on transportation security. “Our concern is oversight, to make sure what the agency tells us we can verify. There are still a lot of things we don’t know. What we do know is troubling.”

Two TSA officials told me that agency personnel have made several visits to each of the 10 Cuban airports that have been certified as “last points of departure” for direct flights to the United States and that the agency is confident they are safe for Americans to fly to and from. All 10 airports meet the minimum standards for security under U.S. and international law, the officials said.

But the TSA officials declined to comment on any of the vulnerabilities identified by the oversight committees, citing those details as “security sensitive information.” Several congressional officials said that when Mizell, the TSA official, originally told lawmakers and staff about the problems, no claim was made about information sensitivity. But when the committee convened open hearings on the issue, officials refused to repeat the facts in public.

The TSA officials also said the Cuban government had finally agreed to allow federal air marshals on commercial flights to and from Cuba on Sept. 26. The administration has not provided the text of that agreement to Congress because it was still being translated from Spanish to English, the officials said.

In June, a group of lawmakers tried to visit the Cuban airports to review matters for themselves, but the Cuban government denied their visas. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the leader of the would-be delegation, told me that the administration, which he said denied repeated requests for assistance and information, was ultimately responsible for thwarting congressional oversight.

“It is my responsibility to ensure that any administration puts the safety and security of the American people above all else,” McCaul said. “Like with the Iran deal and so many other times, the Obama administration prioritizes legacy building at the expense of national security.”

Only days after the lawmakers were denied visas, NBA basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal was granted a visa to visit Cuba as part of a State Department cultural exchange program.

The congressional Republicans sounding the alarm about the Cuban airports also oppose Obama’s overall Cuba policy and doubt that thawing relations with the government of Cuban President Raúl Castro will encourage reform there. That debate likely won’t be resolved for many years, but when it comes to airport security, they certainly have a point.

“Cuba remains a state sponsor of terrorism that is allied with some of the most despicable regimes in the world, from Iran to North Korea, and I can’t comprehend how this administration has allowed commercial flights to Cuba without the proper vetting and security procedures in place at each of the Cuban airports,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told me.

The security situation at Cuban airports is an open invitation for any bad actor who wishes to do harm to the United States to try to board a flight to the United States with whatever dangerous contraband they can carry.

If that’s the price of Obama securing his Cuba legacy, it’s not worth it.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for The Washington Post.

Cuba’s Tourism Thaw With the U.S. Has Been Great News for Its Military



One could easily argue that nothing is hindering progress more in Cuba than its government and its military’s lack of skill and experience to do even the simplest things well. It is not competent enough to run a simple tour bus or tiny restaurant, let alone a UNESCO site. — Jason Clampet

At the height of Cuba’s post-Soviet economic crisis, a man with the obscure title of city historian began transforming Havana’s crumbling historic center block by block, polishing stone facades, replacing broken stained glass and repairing potholed streets.

Over a quarter century, Eusebio Leal turned Old Havana into a painstakingly restored colonial jewel, a tourist draw that brings in more than $170 million a year, according to the most recent available figures. His office became a center of power with unprecedented budgetary freedom from the island’s communist central government.

That independence is gone. Last month, the Cuban military took over the business operations of Leal’s City Historian’s Office, absorbing them into a business empire that has grown dramatically since the declaration of detente between the U.S. and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.

The military’s long-standing business wing, GAESA, assumed a higher profile after Gen. Raul Castro became president in 2008, positioning the armed forces as perhaps the prime beneficiary of a post-detente boom in tourism. Gaviota, the military’s tourism arm, is in the midst of a hotel building spree that outpaces projects under control of nominally civilian agencies like the Ministry of Tourism. The military-run Mariel port west of Havana has seen double-digit growth fueled largely by demand in the tourism sector. The armed forces this year took over the bank that does business with foreign companies, assuming control of most of Cuba’s day-to-day international financial transactions, according to a bank official.

“GAESA is wisely investing in the more international — and more lucrative — segments of the Cuban economy. This gives the military technocrats a strong stake in a more outwardly oriented and internationally competitive Cuba deeply integrated into global markets,” said Richard Feinberg, author of “Open for Business: The New Cuban Economy.”

Castro has never publicly explained his reasoning for giving so much economic power to the military, but the armed forces are widely seen in Cuba as efficient, fast-moving and relatively unscathed by the low-level payoffs and pilferage that plague so much of the government. Economic disruption also is viewed as a crucial national security issue while the government slowly loosens its once-total hold on economic activity and renews ties with its former Cold War enemy 90 miles to the north.

While U.S. President Barack Obama has said detente was meant partly to help ordinary Cubans develop economic independence from a centrally planned government that employs most of the island’s workers, the Cuban government says the U.S. should expect no change in Cuba because of normalization with the U.S.

The takeover of Old Havana shows how the Cuban government is, so far, successfully steering much of the peace dividend into military coffers.

The announcement nearly two years ago that the U.S. and Cuba were restoring diplomatic relations set off a tourism boom with Old Havana at its epicenter. The cobblestone streets are packed with tourists browsing souvenir stands, visiting museums and dining in trendy private restaurants. World figures and celebrities from Madonna to Mick Jagger to Pope Francis and Obama have all visited. Hotels are booked well through next year.

The largest business arm of the historian’s office, Habaguanex, named for a pre-Columbian indigenous chief, directly runs some 20 hotels and 30 stores and more than 25 restaurants in Old Havana.

Under a special exemption by the ruling Council of State, the office has been allowed to use its revenues as it sees fit rather than returning them to the national treasury and receiving a yearly budget allocation from the central government. That 1993 measure is widely credited for giving Leal the power and flexibility to restore Old Havana to international standards while much of the rest of Havana suffers from neglect that has left buildings collapsing and streets rutted with big potholes.

A towering figure in Cuba’s intellectual and political life, Leal, who turns 74 on Sept. 11, is often chosen to deliver meditations on Cuban history and culture at major public events. He has never groomed an obvious successor. He has appeared frail and thin in some recent public appearances and close associates say he has been receiving treatment for a serious illness.

“I’m giving up everything that I think should be, under current conditions, better directed,” Leal told The Associated Press when asked about the military takeover of his financial operations. “There’s a reality. I was trained and educated to work in cultural heritage, and that’s my calling.”

Continue reading Cuba’s Tourism Thaw With the U.S. Has Been Great News for Its Military

Sen. Menendez: Flights to Cuba ‘Enriching the Castro Regime at the Expense of Human Rights and Democracy


CNS News

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said last week that commercial flights from the United States to Cuba are “propping up a regime that oppresses its people” and “enriching the Castro regime at the expense of human rights and democracy.”

“All we’re doing is enriching the Castro regime at the expense of human rights and democracy. So, if we could create, for example, business opportunities with the average Cuban person — if the average Cuban person was free to decide, you know, that I want to start up a little business, a little barber shop or restaurant or a repair shop and be able to profit from that and then because of their economic freedom see greater freedoms from the government. That might be a catalyst.” Sen. Menendez said in an interview with NJTV.

“But all that’s happening here is that in Cuba there are only two main entities that you can deal with. Both are controlled by the Castro regime. One is controlled by Castro’s son. The other one is controlled by his son-in-law. Both of them part of the Cuban military, both of the profits from the proceeds go to the Cuban military,” Menendez said.

“So, we’re actually propping up a regime that oppresses its people and has actually been since the president’s initiative more repressive. More arrests have been taking place, more beatings of human rights activists and political dissonants, because they think the message is, ‘We want to do business with you. We want to go to your beaches, and we’re willing to let human rights and democracy fall by the wayside.’”

Menedez said in order for it to be acceptable to him for the United States to have relations with Cuba, Cuba must be willing to free political prisoners, permit independent journalists, and hold free elections.

Last month, Jet Blue flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Santa Clara, Cuba, was the first direct commercial flight from the United States to Cuba in a half-century.

Lawmakers accuse Homeland Security of doublespeak on Cuba flight risks



Piling security concerns atop their political complaints, House Republicans say initiating commercial air service from Cuba is a disaster waiting to happen, and accused the Obama administration of fast-walking flights to shore up the president’s legacy.

Obama administration officials publicly insist TSA has thoroughly scrutinized the 10 Cuban airports where flights may soon begin, ensuring that they meet the highest security rules laid out by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. body.

But Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) says administration officials have told a different story behind closed doors, including warnings about outdated screening equipment, “mangy street dogs” on canine teams and insufficient vetting practices for aviation workers.

“The administration’s lack of transparency on this issue is unacceptable and leads me to believe that the administration is either hiding something, or worse: simply negligent of the security concerns associated with this policy,” Katko said during a House Homeland Security hearing Tuesday. “The picture officials of TSA paint of the security situation at Cuba’s airports is indeed bleak.”

The congressman, who serves as head of the House Homeland Security subcommittee that handles transportation issues, pressed TSA witness Larry Mizell to reiterate worries he expressed privately. But Mizell declined to publicly elaborate, saying the information was classified as sensitive and that his opinion of Cuba’s aviation security procedures has improved over time.

“The concerns I had that I shared with you was over a five-year period. Certainly I had concerns at the beginning which I don’t have now,” Mizell said. “Right now, the government of Cuba airports that have been assessed and inspected by the inspectors meet ICAO standards.”

Mizell would not say, though, whether he personally believes security is sufficient at Cuban airports.

“The concerns I have are very minor compared to what we were looking at five years ago,” he said.

Katko said that it was only under threat of subpoena that the Homeland Security Department would allow Mizell to appear before the committee.

“Even then,” the congressman said in a statement after the hearing, “the administration failed to allow the witness to openly testify about security concerns that he had previously stated to the committee.”

Katko claims bomb-sniffing dogs at Cuban airports are “poorly trained at best,” that there is no equipment for detecting trace explosives and that only one of the airports in question uses full body scanners.

To boot, “these scanners are Chinese-made,” he said. “We have no idea whether they work at all, or how they work, or how well they work.”

House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said the administration’s plans to open commercial air service to and from Cuba are being “unnecessarily rushed.” The Department of Transportation is evaluating which airlines will receive service to which airports, a process that is expected to be completed in time to inaugurate service in fall.

“There are serious security concerns here that seem to be taking a backseat to a legacy-building effort,” McCaul said. “So far I remain entirely unconvinced the administration has done its due diligence. While the Obama administration may be willing to put the security of Americans at risk to appease a dictator … the United States Congress will not.”

Once commercial service begins, TSA will continue to inspect the security of flights out of Cuba and has the power to suspend service entirely or force emergency security measures, Seth Stodder, a DHS assistant secretary, told the panel.

Besides working to finalize an agreement with Cuba for the use of Federal Air Marshals, Stodder said DHS runs passenger information through the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database; foreign nationals are only allowed to fly to the United States if they have valid visas or permission through the Visa Waiver Program.

“All of the security and enforcement requirements in place for international flights to the United States will be applied with equal force to Cuba flights,” Stodder said. “Indeed, these measures are already in place with regard to the charter flights that have for many years offered service between our two countries.”

Paul Fujimura, assistant administrator for the Office of Global Strategies within DHS, said TSA’s team of about 150 international inspectors uses a standardized assessment to size up aviation security at all airports with direct flights to the United States.

“They follow a very clearly articulated job aid … it’s a very regulated process that we operate around the world,” he said. “I would be very comfortable flying from Cuba myself. They meet international standards.