U.S.-Cuba aviation deal allows 110 scheduled flights per day _lowres

Associated Press file photo -- Passengers arrive on the first flight Continental Airlines flew from Miami to Havana in 2001 under limited restrictions. The United States and Cuba reached an understanding late Wednesday on restoring regularly scheduled commercial flights.

The United States and Cuba have struck a deal to allow as many as 110 regular airline flights a day, allowing a surge of American travel to Cuba that one local expert says could help New Orleans emerge as one potential location for U.S. airlines resuming commercial air service.

New Orleans and Cuba are less than 700 miles apart.

“There’s a lot of prolific travelers in the New Orleans market, and the fact that it is opening up could be a novel thing that a lot of folks might want to consider,” said David Pearlman, an associate professor of hotel, restaurant and tourism administration at the University of New Orleans. “There are some pretty good travelers in this area, and the fact that it’s a new location that’s now accessible, I think it would generate some interest.”

In fact, local airport officials have prepared for that possibility, having received approval from the Cuban government in 2011 for direct flights to operate to and from the island, though at the time the flights were for limited purposes.

“We would be pleased to work with any operator wishing to provide these flights to our community,” airport spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut said Thursday.

For economic development leaders, the latest thawing of relations has the potential for gains for Louisiana in tourism as well as trade with a country that it shares significant historical and cultural connections.

“In general, this represents another opportunity for New Orleans to reconnect with its historical ties in central South America and the Caribbean,” said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc.

Cuba was Louisiana’s top trading partner before Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. The state remains a top trading partner in goods limited to agricultural and humanitarian provisions.

Flying today to Cuba requires wrangling with charter airlines that are expensive and difficult to book.

Nationally, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines all applauded the U.S.-Cuba agreement and said they will work with the U.S. Department of Transportation to secure rights to fly to Cuba.

That could eventually flood the island with hundreds of thousands more U.S. visitors a year, officials said Thursday on the anniversary of detente between the Cold War foes.

The deal — reached Wednesday night after three days of talks in Washington — opens the way for U.S. airlines to negotiate with Cuba’s government for 20 routes a day to Havana and 10 to each of Cuba’s other nine major airports, the State Department said. While it will likely take months before the first commercial flight to Havana, the resumption of regular aviation to Cuba after a half-century will almost certainly be the biggest business development since the two countries began normalizing relations last year.

Even a fraction of the newly allowed number of flights would more than double current U.S. air traffic to Cuba but it may take years to reach that number. U.S. travel to Cuba has risen by more than 50 percent this year alongside an even great surge in travel from other countries, overwhelming the country’s outmoded tourist infrastructure.

Havana’s international airport is barely able to accommodate current demand for flights into the city and virtually every hotel is booked well into next year.

It seems almost certain that Cuban officials will allow new U.S. flights slowly in order to make sure the government can handle the increase in travel.

Advocate business writer Ricky Thompson contributed to this report.