By REBECCA RAINEY and JOELLE LANG
Capital News Service
WASHINGTON — Washington area travelers soon could be flying on regularly scheduled airline flights to Cuba for the first time in half a century.
U.S. airline companies will have the opportunity to apply by March 2 for routes to Cuba from U.S. cities. At the moment, passengers in the national capital area are only allowed to take limited and expensive private flights out of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
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“Previously, charter flights were allowed to operate between the two nations. With the developments [Tuesday] this will all change,” BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said.
These changes come after a landmark agreement signed in Cuba Tuesday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Cuban officials.
Last August, the United States reopened its Havana embassy, which had been closed since 1961. The dramatic move was part of President Barack Obama’s on-going diplomatic initiatives aimed at normalizing relations with Communist Cuba, a nation of 11.2 million people. Restored air service is another key step.
“(Obama) is breaking down barriers and building bridges,” said Tomas Bilbao, a Cuba expert who for more than a decade has advocated better U.S.-Cuban relations.
The agreement will allow up to 110 daily flights from the U.S. to Cuba, including 20 daily flights to Havana, according to the Department of Transportation. U.S. citizens still are barred from going to Cuba as tourists, but may qualify for travel to the country under a dozen potential categories.
American air carriers last provided regular service to Cuba during John F. Kennedy’s administration, when many airlines still used propeller-driven planes for the short hop from the mainland.
“DOT invited U.S. air carriers to apply for an allocation of the new opportunities to provide scheduled passenger and cargo flights to Cuba,” the agency said in a statement. “The department will consider which proposals will offer and maintain the best service to the traveling and shipping public.”
Because applications to provide flights to Cuba are not due at the department until March 2, BWI’s Dean said it is too soon to tell which airlines will be offering commercial flights.
American Airlines, which has a hub at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, will be submitting a Cuba service proposal, according to chairman and CEO Doug Parker.
Service from the airline’s Latin American hub at Miami International Airport will be included in the proposal, and the airline is considering applying for flights to Cuba from other hubs, according to a statement.
“Beyond Miami, we aren’t going to be specific until (the) application is submitted,” spokeswoman Martha Pantin said.
JetBlue Airlines’ Senior Vice President Rob Land said in a statement that the company is enthusiastic about starting service to Cuba.
“As a leading airline to the Caribbean and as an experienced carrier serving Cuba with charter flights since 2011, JetBlue eagerly awaits the opportunity to grow our service with regularly scheduled routes between various U.S. and Cuban cities,” Land said.
JetBlue’s secondary hubs include Washington Dulles International Airport.
Not only will this new deal allow for more travel options to Cuba, but also it is likely to be cheaper to get there.
“It’s an opportunity to lower the cost for people traveling to Cuba in this area,” Bilbao said, referring to the Washington region.
A government decision on the new routes should be made by this summer, according to the Miami Herald.
Transportation Department officials were reached by phone but had no further comment about potential Washington area service to Cuba.