In December 2019 the US government blocked commercial flights between the US and a number of Cuban cities, increasing economic pressures on the Cuban government. Today the Department of Transportation, acting on behalf of the Department of State, upped the ante. Public charter flights are also to be suspended for all airports other than Havana’s José Martí International Airport (HAV) and the number of charter flights will be capped.
Secretary of State Pompeo requested the move in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Chao with the justification reading, in part:
To strengthen the impact of the Administration’s policy of applying economic pressure on the Cuban regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms for all in Cuba and to cease its unconscionable support for the illegitimate and totalitarian regime of former President Maduro in Venezuela, and in the foreign policy interests of the United States, I respectfully request that the Department of Transportation suspend until further notice all public charter flights between the United States and all airports in Cuba except José Martí International Airport (HAV) in Havana. I further request that the Department of Transportation, in the foreign-policy interest of the United States, cap charter flights to José Martí International Airport at an appropriate level consistent with the policy objectives identified above.
Until commercial service resumed in 2016 the public charter flights were the primary option for travelers between the US and Cuba. As the commercial service expanded the number of charter services dropped. With this news the DoT indicated that it will cap 2020 charter flights at the 2019 level (3600 round trip). Moreover, the DoT does not expect to allow new airlines in to the market, at least not this year. It will honor the applications currently approved for 2020 but not extend the opportunity further: “We do not, however, anticipate accepting any new prospectuses, or new amended prospectuses, for additional public charter flights that would result in exceeding current levels of public charter service to/from Havana.”
While the prohibition on commercial flights to secondary Cuban cities might have given airlines some relief against the commercial pressures the operations presented the cutting of charter services is unlikely to be as positive. Those flights historically were profitable for the operators. Arguably the opening of commercial service, and the impact that had on the public charter demand, shifted the market significantly (and caused Eastern to fail, or at least sped that process).
The full policy will be implemented in the coming days, following a proper filing in the Federal Register but the DoT issued the announcement today indicating the intent.