With yields weak and demand far lower than expected, we’ve seen many carriers reduce or eliminate service to Cuba. Even so, U.S. airlines are still fiercely fighting for Havana slots.
Under current U.S. Department of Transportation rules, airlines are collectively limited to 20 round trips per day from the U.S. to Havana. Those slots were quickly assigned in 2016, but a handful have become vacant again.
Spirt Airlines abandoned service to Havana from Ft. Lauderdale, Frontier Airlines from Miami, and Alaska Airlines from Los Angeles. Some airlines have also reduced or downgraded service to Cuba. For example, Delta now runs JFK to HAV only on Saturdays.
A pair of startling figures from Delta gives us some idea why. Delta serves Havana from Atlanta and New York JFK. By the end of the last year, load factor on Havana flights dropped from 85.7% in Atlanta to 60.6%. JFK dropped from 82.9% at JFK to 56.8%.
And yet carriers still see strategic interest and future potential in these routes. Delta now wants to take over the Miami to Havana route that Frontier abandoned. United wants to add flights out of Houston to Havana, using a mainline Boeing 737 some days and a Embraer 175, operated by United Express subsidiary Mesa on other days. Eyeing similar flexibility, both American and Delta support United’s request to use regional jets on Havana routes.
JetBlue also wants new Havana routes and has complained to the DOT that the use of regional jets will reduce seat availability and lead to higher prices for consumers.
United brashly dismissed that argument, stating–
JetBlue’s intransigence on this issue is nothing more than a thinly veiled effort to derail, on a meritless technicality, United’s superior proposal.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that is a meritless technicality.
Finally, Southwest also filed papers to take over the Ft. Lauderdale to Havana service from Frontier, but has not requested further routes.
While I understand why U.S. airlines want to position themselves to capitalize on the Cuban market in the years ahead, this is not a profitable period. In light of diplomatic strains with the U.S. and stalled reform in Cuba, I suspect most routes beyond South Florida will be money-losers for the time being.