Friday, August 19, 2016

Cuba approves first commercial flights from Miami and Fort Lauderdale

Cuba approves first commercial flights from Miami and Fort Lauderdale

American Airlines and JetBlue have received final approval from the
Cuban government to begin commercial airline service to several airports
on the island, clearing the last hurdle for inaugural flights from Miami
and Fort Lauderdale.

JetBlue, with a flight scheduled to Santa Clara from Fort
Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Aug. 31, gets the
distinction as the first regularly scheduled flight to Cuba in more than
50 years, and American Airlines will follow up the next week with
commercial airline service from Miami International Airport beginning
Sept. 7.

At this point, JetBlue has only received the green light for its flights
to Santa Clara, but it also hopes to begin service to Holguín and
Camagüey in November.

American, which plans twice-daily flights to Holguín, Santa Clara and
Varadero and daily fights to Camagüey and Cienfuegos, has received Cuban
government approval to land and take off from all five Cuban airports.
In all, it will be offering 56 weekly flights to Cuba.

American, JetBlue and other airlines have applied to the U.S. Department
of Transportation to fly 20 daily routes to Havana, but so far DOT has
only granted preliminary approval for the routes. Final DOT approval is
expected later this year, and then Cuba's Civil Aviation Institute must
also give its OK.

Frontier, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines
also have won DOT approval for non-Havana routes.

"We've been hard at work to make sure we're Cuba-ready," American
spokeswoman Martha Pantin said Thursday — the day American received the
paperwork on its flight approvals.

That includes shipping computers, signage and other equipment to all
five Cuban airports American will serve to handle check-ins and to train
Cuban employees who will be processing passengers. Pantin said that
since early August, American has been training the Cubans on its
check-in procedures and systems at training facilities set up at the
five airports.

JetBlue also has begun training personnel at the airport in Santa Clara.

Although charter flights have carried passengers to and from Cuba for
decades — many times on aircraft leased from JetBlue, American and other
airlines — the new era of commercial air service will bring somewhat
different procedures for passengers.

The first and perhaps biggest change will be in baggage policies.
Passengers on Cuba charters have grown used to liberal baggage policies,
and passengers with luggage carts piled high with televisions, household
goods and shrink-wrapped packages are a common sight at airports where
the charters embark.

But with scheduled service, Pantin said, there will be restrictions on
overweight, oversize and excess baggage. In general, passengers will be
permitted no more than 100 pounds of baggage and no boxes or oversized
baggage will be permitted.

Travelers on American flights will be allowed two bags of no more than
62 linear inches and 50 pounds each, she said. Except for passengers who
have elite status or are traveling first class, fees will be $25 for the
first checked bag and $40 for the second.

For its Cuba flights, JetBlue plans to allow one piece of checked
baggage of up to 50 pounds for free. Passengers will be able to check
baggage of up to 70 pounds but will have to pay an overweight fee.
Luggage of up to 64 linear inches will be allowed. For baggage more than
64 inches and up to 84 linear inches, an overweight fee will be charged,
said Philip Stewart, JetBlue's manager of corporate communications.

Unlike most scheduled flights, passengers can't simply choose a Cuban
city and book a flight. They must fall into 12 categories of travel
allowed by the U.S. government. When booking, passengers must complete
an affidavit certifying they are going to Cuba for one of the approved
categories of travel.

American is working with Cuba Travel Services, which also offers charter
service to Cuba, to help passengers with visas to Cuba. Pantin said CTS
will be in touch with passengers about visa requirements 30 days before
their departure dates, but those who require special visas such as
journalists and business travelers still must be in touch with the Cuban
Embassy in Washington, D.C., to obtain the correct documentation.

For those who need tourist visas — generally those taking
people-to-people trips to Cuba — JetBlue will sell them at cost to
passengers at gateway airports on the day of travel. Stewart said
JetBlue is still working out details with the Cuban government on the
cost of those visas.

On charter flights, the cost of health insurance while in Cuba is
generally rolled into ticket prices. Stewart said JetBlue would continue
that practice and the included health coverage on JetBlue flights would
be good for 30 days.

"Our whole thing is demystifying travel to Cuba. We're trying to make
this as streamlined as possible," Stewart said.

As part of that, JetBlue is offering starting fares to the three Cuban
cities it will initially serve for $99 one-way.

American Airlines plans to set up special booths at the MIA check-in
area where passengers can purchase Cuban health insurance and tourist
visas and have their documents checked. If everything is in order, the
passengers will get a Cuba-ready stamp allowing them to complete the
check-in process, Pantin said. Mobile boarding passes won't be available
for the Cuba flights.

Non-Cuba residents, except for those from countries with reciprocal
health insurance agreements with Cuba, will be required to purchase
health insurance, Pantin said.

Passengers taking charter flights to Cuba are usually advised to be at
the airport four hours in advance. JetBlue has shaved an hour off that
and is recommending that passengers headed to Cuba be at the airport
three hours in advance. American also "strongly suggests" passengers
arrive at the airport three hours ahead of time.

Mimi Whitefield: @HeraldMimi on Twitter

Source: American Airlines, JetBlue get Cuban approval for inaugural
commercial flights to Cuba from Miami and Fort Lauderdale | In Cuba
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