Source: The Wall Street Journal
By SUSAN CAREY
The two carriers were among six that won route rights to secondary airports in Cuba.
Silver Airways Inc., a Florida-based operator of turboprop planes, said it put its planned Cuba flights on sale last weekend hoping to be the first airline to begin selling scheduled flights to the island nation in more than 50 years. It intends to operate its first flight Sept. 1.
American Airlines Group Inc. said it put tickets on sale earlier this week and plans to start flying Sept. 7 to two Cuban airports.
Last week, the Transportation Department awarded rights to six U.S. carriers to serve secondary Cuban airports. But it said it would wait until later this summer to apportion airline requests for flights to Havana, because it received three times more requests than the 20 daily flights that are available.
American, the top U.S. airline by traffic, won rights to five secondary Cuban airports from its Miami hub. It plans to use Boeing 737-800s with 160 seats or Airbus A319s with 144 seats and fly one or two times daily. Flights to Cienfuegos and Holguin are scheduled to begin first, on Sept. 7, followed by Santa Clara and Camaguey two days later, then Varadero Airport in Matanzas province on Sept. 11, said an airline spokeswoman.
A flight from Cienfuegos on Sept. 7, returning a week later, cost $488 round trip on American’s website.
Silver said its first flight, to Santa Clara, Cuba, will take off Sept. 1 from Fort Lauderdale. That flight will start operating three times a week and move to daily service on Oct. 13. Flights to the other eight secondary Cuban airports it was cleared to serve will begin between Oct. 13 and Dec. 16, depending on the route, operating anywhere between daily and once a week, the company said.
Jason Bewley, Silver’s executive vice president of commercial and chief financial officer, said Cuban authorities now must formally authorize the U.S. flights on the dates Silver said it wants and is selling. “Fares we’re selling, we’re going to honor, regardless,” he said, even if Cuban authorities change the taxes they are imposing on the flights.
Using a promotional code, a round trip to Santa Clara departing on Sept. 8 and returning a week later is $313.16 on Silver’s website. Without the promotion, the fare is $425.16. Silver operates 34-seat turboprop planes, which should be easier to fill than the much larger planes its rivals plan to put on the routes, Mr. Bewley said.
Silver, owned by Victory Park Capital Advisors LLC, a Chicago-based investment firm, is a leading regional airline within the state of Florida and in offering flights from there to the Bahamas.
Because U.S. citizens can’t go to Cuba strictly for tourism, passengers will need to declare themselves in one of 12 categories of travel authorized by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Those categories include family visits, educational and religious activities, humanitarian projects and athletic competitions.
U.S. airlines are expected to communicate with their customers by email on how to self-declare their category of travel to the government or help them do so at the airport before departures. They also are expected to assist passengers with obtaining Cuban visas, either ahead of time or at the airport. Over time, these tasks may be accomplished on their websites.
Silver hasn’t yet visited all nine Cuban airports it intends to serve. Mr. Bewley said the company will soon begin airport visits to assess the facilities, arrange for space, get the necessary information technology tools into place and hire state-owned ground handlers to fuel the planes and load and unload the luggage. In the beginning, he said, Silver will bring its own mechanics on its flights, but hopes eventually there will be approved maintenance providers in Cuba.
Silver also is seeking approval to fly to Havana five times a day. But due to the competition for the route rights, Mr. Bewley said the carrier would be satisfied with two daily flights, one of which it would split between Fort Myers and West Palm Beach, and the other between Key West and Jacksonville. Those four Florida cities have sizable Cuban-American populations but have no other opportunity for now for direct service to Cuba.
Larger carriers including American, Delta Air Lines Inc., United Continental HoldingsInc., Southwest Airlines Co. and JetBlue Airways Corp. also have requested numerous Havana flights. JetBlue and Southwest last week were among the group that received rights to some of Cuba’s secondary airports. They said they would start flying later this year.