Despite several airlines abandoning their service to Cuba, the competition remains hotly contested among other U.S. carriers competing to boost their flights to Havana.
The Transportation Department set a limit of 20 daily round-trips to Havana, with more flights to other cities, when it reopened scheduled passenger service in February 2016. The move was part of a revival of diplomatic relations under the Obama administration for the first time in more than 50 years.
The competition to serve the Caribbean destination was fierce, and all Havana slots were allocated by August 2016. But since then, with a weak market and diplomatic tensions, several airlines have dropped out.
Frontier Airlines ended daily round-trips between Miami and Havana. Spirit Airlines ended twice-daily flights between Fort Lauderdale and Havana.
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While the department weighed who should get those slots, Alaska Airlines ended its daily service between Los Angeles and Havana in January.
Then Delta Air Lines announced that it would drop its New York JFK to Havana service from Sunday through Friday in February, while keeping its Saturday flights.
Despite the concerns, interest among the rivals remains strong as the department gauges who should fill the openings. Airlines are sniping at each other over their proposals such as where they fly from and the types of planes proposed.
American Airlines would like to add daily service between Miami and Havana with Boeing 737-800 aircraft. Barring that, American would like Saturday- and Sunday-only service with the same plane, or at least Saturday-only service.
American noted that plummeting demand drove other airlines out of the market. But American argued that it provides the best service from Miami to Havana, as measured by passenger traffic and how full the planes fly with nearly four out of five seats full.
“The incomparable performance of (Miami to Havana) service, especially in recent months, makes clear that demand for additional U.S. to Havana exists at MIA and MIA alone,” American said in its filing.
Delta noted the portion of planes flying full dropped from a peak last year of 85.7% in Atlanta to 60.6% in November, and from a peak of 82.9% at JFK to 56.8% in November. The load factor from Miami fluctuated, but ended near the peak of 85.3% in November.
Delta is asking for an additional daily flight between Miami and Havana, basically to replace Frontier. The airline highlighted its interest in the Caribbean, where its service has grown from 2.13 million seats in 2013 to 2.96 million seats last year.
Delta argued that it would be the only rival to American at Miami, making its competition even more important than when flights began after a 50-year hiatus.
But United Airlines and Mesa Airlines filed a joint proposal to add flights Sunday through Friday from Houston to Havana, which looks like a match for what Delta gave up. The flights would be on Boeing 737 or Embraer 175 aircraft, depending whether the mainline or regional airline was flying.
Meanwhile, JetBlue Airways, which promotes itself as committed to serving Cuba for the long-haul, argued that the Big 3 airlines of American, Delta and United already fly nearly 60% of the flights to Havana.
JetBlue argued that if the larger airlines are allowed to fly 50-seat regional jets, it would hurt consumers and low-cost competitors. JetBlue posited that “American, as it often does, cherry picks data” and its “broad pronunciations should be ignored.”
JetBlue also argued that Delta service wasn’t necessary from Miami because JetBlue and Southwest Airlines “provide meaningful price discipline.”
United bristled at the criticism.
“JetBlue’s intransigence on this issue is nothing more than a thinly veiled effort to derail, on a meritless technicality, United’s superior proposal,” United said in its filing.
United noted support from American and Delta for its request for flexibility to use regional jets, and American also asked to use regional jets.
Delta said JetBlue was making irrelevant claims about its “dartboard” approach to the Caribbean and relying upon improper analysis in arguing against it getting a slot.
“Delta has demonstrated consistent and growing service to the Caribbean,”
Southwest, which only flies versions of the 737, asked for one of the three daily flights to Havana, which it would serve from Fort Lauderdale.
Federal Express would like to fly cargo five days a week between Miami and Havana with a Cessna 208.