In the space of six months, the re-opened US-Cuba commercial aviation market has gone from hot to lukewarm.
American carriers rushed last year to secure slots to the Caribbean island after the US and Cuba signed an agreement that re-established scheduled air services for the first time in more than 50 years. The US Department of Transportation (DOT), then under the Obama administration and headed by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, lauded the agreement as something of great benefit to US airlines, shippers and travelers. More than 100 daily roundtrip slots were made available to US carriers, and they responded swiftly.
US airlines began their services in late summer, beginning with JetBlue Airways’ historic first flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Santa Clara in central Cuba on Aug. 31. But then a strange thing happened. For most airlines, especially those operating to cities outside of Havana, demand has been disappointingly low. By late 2016, some carriers were already trimming capacity—reducing frequencies and/or using smaller aircraft. In March, two airlines—Silver Airways and ultra-low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines—threw in the towel and dropped service altogether.
Airline conversation about the Cuban market has changed significantly—from excited anticipation to caution and talk of longer-term potential.
In truth, US airline optimism was overblown. With little-to-no data on a market that was non-existent for more than five decades, it was difficult to predict accurately how fast it would grow. There were, however, well-documented infrastructure and capacity constraints in Cuba that should have indicated to airline forecasters that the pace would likely be slower rather than faster.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration also left the airline industry hanging. The 2016 aviation memorandum of understanding with Cuba, though significant, was simply not sufficient in itself to release the largest market opportunity—tourism. Any US citizen who fancies a vacation in Cuba now has any number of US airline route options. But the State Department sternly warns the would-be American tourist: “Tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited. You must obtain a license from the Department of Treasury or your travel must fall into one of 12 categories of authorized travel.”
There’s the Cuban conundrum that the Obama administration bequeathed to US airlines and American tourists. You can fly there, but you can’t be a tourist.
Infrastructure and distribution challenges will certainly hinder US-Cuban aviation market growth, but they can be addressed. The real roadblock is political. And the biggest question is whether the Trump administration will remove that hurdle or make it even more difficult? The future of this fledgling market depends on the answer.