Private Charter Flights To Cuba Banned By United States

On Friday, the US Department of Transportation (DOT), on instruction from the Secretary of State, suspended all private charter flights between the United States and Cuba. The hardline move comes into effect on October 13th and has nothing to do with COVID. Instead, it is to apply pressure on Havana for its support of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.

American Airlines Cuba
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has banned private charter carriers from flying between the US and Cuba. Photo: Getty

It’s a flight ban that, for once, has nothing to do with the ongoing pandemic. Instead, it is the escalation of an argument between two historically bitter enemies, involving an entirely different country.

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Claims of funds going to Venezuela

On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, currently on a European elbow-greeting tour with NATO allies in Central Europe, took to Twitter to announce that he had asked the DOT to suspend private charter flights to Cuba.

Mr Pompeo said that he believes the Castro regime to be using tourism and travel funds to support its interference in a third country – Venezuela. The US and Cuba back different sides in the bitter power struggle between President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself acting President in January 2019.

Private charter flights to Cuba have served the function of regularly scheduled air traffic between the country and the US since 2000. Any American wishing to visit Cuba with a commercial airline would need to go a different route, for instance, via Canada.

JetBlue Cuba Havana Getty Images
JetBlue was among the six US carriers allowed to fly to Cuba in 2016. Photo: Getty Images

From enthusiasm to overcapacity

That is, until 2016 when the Obama administration approved six airlines for direct flights to Cuba. A few months after the President’s historic visit to the island, American Airlines, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines, and Sun Country were allowed to fly to several destinations in Cuba from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis-St Paul.

An agreement was signed even before the Obamas’ visit, allowing for 20 daily round-trip flights to Havana. US airlines applied with the DOT and the number of requests tallied in at three times as many as the agreed-upon slots.

And no wonder. In 2015, Cuba had 163,000 visitors from the US. In 2018, that number had risen to 638,000. However, the initial enthusiasm quickly died down, and several carriers, including Silver Airways and Frontier, dropped services due to overcapacity.

Cubana Ilyushin
Previous bans have impacted Cubana. Photo: Dmitry Terekhov via Flickr

Flights capped at 2019 numbers

Of course, that changed in December 2019, when the current administration, also to apply economic pressure on the Cuban Government over Venezuela, banned regularly scheduled flights to all destinations except Havanna. JetBlue and American were hit hard by the ban, and Cubana and Avianca also had to cancel routes.

The ban did not include charter flights, and companies such as Cubazul Charter and Aerocuba instead added services as a result. This prompted the DOT to impose a cap on private charter flights to Cuba at 3,600 per year, the number of flights that took place in 2019.

What do you think of flight bans as a means of exerting economic pressure? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.