Airlines drop Cuba flights, citing lower demand than anticipated

Just six months after being the first airline to sell seats on regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, Silver Airways, a regional carrier based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that specializes in smaller markets, will scrap its service to the island next month. It is the latest industry move to underscore that fewer Americans are traveling to Cuba than originally anticipated. 

Citing low demand and competition from major airlines, Silver said it would cease its operations in Cuba effective April 22. The move follows other reductions by American Airlines and JetBlue, which in recent weeks either switched to smaller aircraft or cut back on the number of flights. Experts say the changes in the young market illustrate not so much a lack of passengers, but the rush of airlines into new territory with an abundance of seats the market could not possibly fill.  

“Other airlines continue to serve this market with too many flights and oversized aircraft, which has led to an increase in capacity of approximately 300 percent between the U.S. and Cuba,” said Misty Pinson, director of communications for Silver. “It is not in the best interest of Silver and its team members to behave in the same irrational manner as other airlines.”  

On Monday, Denver-based Frontier Airlines said that it would cease its daily flight to Havana from Miami on June 4. The airline said costs in Havana significantly exceeded initial assumptions, “market conditions failed to materialize” and too much capacity had been allocated between Florida and Cuba.  

Regularly scheduled passenger jet service to Cuba had been cut off for more than 50 years. Americans who wanted to go there had to go through third countries or take expensive charter flights that were notorious for long delays and steep baggage fees.  

President Barack Obama renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, and then brought back commercial airline travel last year. The companies that were authorized by the Department of Transportation booked routes not just to Havana, but also to less traveled cities such as Manzanillo and Holguín. With no history of commercial airline traffic to judge by, the airlines were largely guessing how many U.S. citizens and Cubans would line up for tickets.  

United Airlines has service from Newark and Houston, and Alaska Airlines flies to Havana from Los Angeles. Delta offers three daily flights to Havana from Atlanta, Miami and Kennedy International Airport in New York. Destinations like Santa Clara proved to be less popular than the airlines had hoped, and some were forced to scale back.  

“We started pretty big in Cuba,” said Laura Masvidal, a spokeswoman for American Airlines. “We made some adjustments to adjust to the market demand.”  

Until February, American Airlines offered 1,920 seats a day to Cuba. The number dropped last month to 1,472, a nearly 25 percent reduction. The airline cut flights to Holguín, Santa Clara and Varadero to one daily flight from two, Masvidal said.  

JetBlue Airways, which on Aug. 31 was the first to fly to Cuba, still offers nearly 50 weekly round-trip flights between the U.S. and four Cuban cities, but the airline recently switched to smaller planes.  

“We have made some adjustment to aircraft types assigned to the routes, which is common as we constantly evaluate how to best utilize our aircraft fleet within our network,” said Doug McGraw, an airline spokesman.  

Silver Airways has been flying 22 flights a week with smaller aircraft to nine Cuban destinations other than the capital, including Santa Clara, Holguín and Cayo Coco. Demand, Pinson said, was depressed by complications with online travel agency distribution and code-share agreements that still have not been resolved. The airline had already tried reducing its offerings.  

The airline’s decision comes even as passenger traffic to Cuba is increasing at a brisk pace.  

“The market is exploding,” said Chad Olin, president of Cuba Candela, which specializes in booking trips to Cuba for the millennial traveler. “There is some demand adjustment happening as well, but net outcome is still one of the fastest growing markets in global tourism history.”  

Olin said restaurants, bars and private home rentals are much more crowded with Americans than even just a few months ago. “You hear American English spoken everywhere,” he said in an email.  

And to hear the Cuban government media tell it, Americans interested in visiting Cuba were triggered by a message that told everyone to “travel now.”   

The number of Americans who visited Cuba was up 125 percent in January, compared with the same month last year, the government reported, calling it a “virtual stampede.” Americans, the report said, were prompted by President Donald Trump’s administration calling for a total review of the Cuba policies enacted by Obama.  

Under the administration of George W. Bush, Cuban-Americans were limited to how often they could visit their families, so that niche also had a 38 percent increase, the Cuban media report said.  

But it was still not enough to fill the flights.  

“I think that a lot of airlines thought that there would be more demand than there is,” said Paul Berry, a spokesman for Spirit Airlines, which flies twice a day to Havana from Fort Lauderdale. “Loads are not very heavy.”  

Berry said there are still glitches, including not being able to easily use U.S. credit cards. Cuban hotels are pricey, and some travelers are turned off by the extra costs for things like required traveler’s medical insurance and visas. The landing fees alone, Berry said, are sometimes more expensive than the actual airfare.  

U.S. citizens are still required to report which of the 12 authorized types of travel they are undertaking, which could also be limiting the number of potential passengers, he said. Religious and educational trips are allowed, but tanning on the beach is not. Many Americans are “not willing to flat-out lie” about why they are going, Berry said.  

“A lot of people are not traveling; I think that’s why you see other airlines scale back,” he said. “There’s just not as much demand to go around.”

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