WASHINGTON -- As the Obama administration eases travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, domestic airlines are gearing up to offer more direct flights to the island.
Regular commercial air travel to Cuba has been heavily restricted since 1963. But last month, the U.S. restored formal diplomatic ties with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years. And with the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana last week, many expect the travel ban to be lifted soon.
David Bach, a senior lecturer in global business and politics at the Yale School of Management, said that regular commercial air service is essential to the process of renewing ties between the estranged countries.
"Politically, it's incredibly symbolic," he said.
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Airlines aren't waiting for Congress to lift the embargo, though. They've already expanded charter flights to Cuba or announced plans to do so. Charter flights are not part of an airline's regular schedule.
American Airlines said Tuesday that it would begin nonstop service later this year between Los Angeles and Havana, Cuba's first direct connection to the West Coast in many years. The airline has operated charter flights to Cuba since 1991.
The charter flights will operate on Saturdays beginning Dec. 12 with Boeing 737s. American plans to offer another Saturday charter flight from Miami to Havana.
Last month, JetBlue began direct charter service from New York's JFK International, building on its existing charter flights from Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.
United, Delta and Southwest don't currently operate
charter flights to Cuba, but spokespersons for all three airlines indicated Tuesday that they were considering it.
Under current law, U.S. citizens can visit Cuba under a narrow set of categories, such as family visits, official U.S. government business, journalistic activity and athletic competitions.
It would take legislation from Congress to lift those restrictions. Similar bills in the Senate and House of Representatives each have at least 40 bipartisan co-sponsors.
While there were reports late Monday that the Obama administration would act on its own authority to enable regular air service by year's end, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the embargo remains in place.
"No decisions have yet been made," Kirby said.
Even with the longstanding U.S. embargo, Havana's Jose Marti International Airport serves 4 million passengers a year with 25 carriers.
Air Canada, for example, flies to Havana and five other Cuban cities.
"The Canadian airlines have been flying there for a long time," said Bach, of the Yale School of Management. "The logistical challenges to doing this aren't really that great."
Though it cannot land at any U.S. airports, Cubana Airlines flies directly from Havana to Montreal, Toronto and Mexico City, as well as numerous destinations in Europe and Latin America.
U.S. charter flights operate out of their own terminal at Marti airport. Transitioning to regular service wouldn't be difficult, according to Tom Reich, director of air service development at AFCO AvPorts Management, an aviation consulting firm in Dulles, Va.
The only potential hurdle is hiring a ground staff, which could consist of workers already handling the charter flights or a company that would act as the airline's ground staff.
"Neither are show-stoppers considering the current charters to Havana are already being ground-handled by someone," Reich said.
Art Torno, American's senior vice president for international and cargo, said in a statement that the airline would be "ready to offer scheduled service as soon as the United States and Cuba allow commercial flights."
Tamara Young, a spokeswoman for JetBlue, said the airline's Cuba flights have been "near capacity" in recent weeks and envisions the island will become an important market.
"We are interested in providing scheduled service from multiple U.S. cities as soon as legally permitted," she said.
Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta, said the carrier supports efforts to allow commercial service to resume and looks "forward to serving the market when the opportunity becomes available."
While United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said the company doesn't currently operate charter flights, he said it would pursue commercial service once that becomes possible.
Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest, said the largest U.S. domestic carrier had no immediate plans to offer service to Cuba, but called it "a good future opportunity."