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The Trump Administration moved Friday afternoon to ban U.S. airlines from flying to all Cuban airports outside of Havana to punish the country for its support of Venezuela, a move that is probably more symbolic than anything else, as many U.S. carriers long ago gave up on outlying cities because of lack of demand.
Within 45 days, U.S. airlines must cancel all flights to nine airports, according to a directive from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The department said it took action after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao asking her “to further the Administration’s policy of strengthening the economic consequences to the Cuban regime for its ongoing repression of the Cuban people and its support for Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.”
Three years ago, this might have been a bigger deal. After the Obama Administration opened diplomatic relations with Cuba, U.S. airlines rushed to add all the flights they could under bilateral agreements between countries. They hoped that they could secure a long-term monopoly and make big profits in a protected market.
But even before President Trump made sweeping changes to which travelers could visit Cuba, many U.S. airlines soured on non-Havana routes. By March 2017, before Trump had done much, two airlines — Frontier Airlines and Silver Airways — had said they would pull out of Cuba completely, saying demand never materialized. Silver Airways, which flies smaller turboprops, had bet it had the right-sized aircraft to serve Camagüey, Cuba’s third largest city, Cayo Coco, Holguin, and Cienfuegos. But it could not even fill them.
Among U.S. airlines, American Airlines has the most robust presence in cities other than Havana. A representative for the airline said it still flies to Varadero, Camagüey, Santa Clara, Holguín and Santiago, all once daily. American operates a hub in Miami, by far the most popular airport for U.S.-Cuban travel, and its six daily flights to Havana are probably decent performers.
JetBlue Airways also flies to several of the outlying airports from its focus city in Fort Lauderdale, including Camagüey, Holguin and Santa Clara.
“We plan to operate in full compliance with the new policy concerning scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba. We are beginning to work with our various government and commercial partners to understand the full impact of this change on our customers and operations in Camagüey, Holguín and Santa Clara,” a JetBlue spokesman said in email.
Most larger U.S. airlines retain at least some presence in Havana, though demand there also has not materialized as expected. One exception is Alaska Airlines, America’s fifth-largest carrier, which left Havana in early 2018. It had flown from Los Angeles.