The return of U.S. commercial aviation to Cuba is off to a start marked by lots of enthusiasm, competition for routes and, perhaps, not as many passengers as the airlines hoped.
While flights to the expected big choice, Havana, won't start until late November, ticket sales are off to a slow start for other cities where flights began over the summer. On those flights, results have been somewhat disappointing; American has flown planes with as few as 12 passengers, and 50% load factors are common.
Since U.S. citizens are still not allowed to visit Cuba for tourism (they must meet one of 12 'people-to-people' criteria for their travel), it seems logical that it will take time for traffic to build, especially to cities that are major resort destinations.
While U.S. citizens with Cuban families have fewer restrictions on visits, and may need flights to those areas, it's always been assumed that Havana would be the big draw, and that's why the limited Havana slots left many carriers out. But even for Havana, where American will fly on November 28, ticket sales are slow. While American visits to Cuba have been rising sharply over the past year, many who would like to go are in a holding pattern to see what develops.
JetBlue has been trying to build business by aggressively discounting tickets, with some flights as low as $59. American is so far taking a longer-term approach. In a financial report last week, American's VP of revenue management said "I think everybody is finding it a little difficult to sell in Cuba." CEO Doug Parker says he isn't worried, and expected a gradual buildup: "We're in this for the long haul. This is not something we didn't expect. It's a new market."
Photo: Street scene in Santiago de Cuba