JetBlue and United reduce Cuba service, but tour ops say demand is still there

JetBlue will soon stop flying to Cuba, citing weak demand that it attributes to U.S. restrictions on travel to the island nation.

United, meanwhile, will end service between Newark and Cuba in late October. The carrier didn’t say why. 

But tour operators say Cuba business this year has been strong, and they don’t anticipate the flight reductions to be impactful. 

“The second half of 2022 was the biggest in our 15-year history, and it is showing no signs of slowing down,” said David Lee, founder of Cultural Cuba. “The demand for Cuba is growing.”

JetBlue is currently among five airlines servicing the U.S.-Cuba market. Until the spring, the carrier flew between Fort Lauderdale and Havana nearly three times daily before scaling back to twice daily over the summer.

JetBlue also flies weekly from New York JFK to Havana. Both routes will be suspended in September, with JetBlue’s final Havana flight scheduled for Sept. 17 from Fort Lauderdale. 

The cessations will cede the Fort Lauderdale-Havana market to Southwest, which flies the route three times daily. And the combined suspensions from United and JetBlue will leave no nonstop service between the New York area and Cuba.

JetBlue said restrictions on travel between the U.S. and Cuba have continued to depress demand in that market.

“We look forward to resuming our service to Havana and continuing to pursue opportunities within Cuba should travel become more accessible in the future,” the carrier said. 

The Biden administration has removed some of the Cuba travel restrictions that were re-imposed during the Trump administration. They include allowing flights to Cuban cities other than Havana and bringing back group educational travel under the travel authorization category known as people-to-people, which is commonly used by tour operators. 

Trump-era bans on cruises to Cuba remain in place. 

Tour operators say that commercial flight options to Cuba will remain robust enough to serve their clients, even after the coming cutbacks. 

American Airlines is the leader in the U.S.-Cuba market, offering service to six Cuban destinations from Miami, including as many as eight daily frequencies to Havana. Delta also flies Miami-Havana, Southwest serves Havana from Tampa in addition to Fort Lauderdale and United will continue flying Houston-Havana. 

“We really haven’t had much trouble getting the lift that we need for our passengers,” said Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel and co-owner of Insight Cuba. “I don’t expect it to be anything catastrophic.”
Joe Sandillo, co-founder of Almaz Journeys, also said the impact will be minimal. 

He added that most New York-based Almaz clients already connect to Cuba through South Florida. 

The company’s four Cuba group itineraries have made a comeback this year after a prolonged Covid downturn, though they remain approximately 25% below the pre-Covid level.

“Demand has come back for us this year very well, with a number of guests traveling through the first six months of the year and a number of Thanksgiving and winter bookings coming up,” Almaz said.

Goldman said that shortages of consumer goods continue to pose logistical challenges for Cuba tour operators.

Nevertheless, sales of group Cuba itineraries at Friendly Planet and Insight Cuba this year still have a chance to reach the record level of 2018. 

To wit, Friendly Planet recently began selling a fourth Cuba itinerary, extending farther afield from Havana and reaching as far as the town of Trinidad, where Goldman is confident about sourcing quality accommodations. The itinerary launches in January.

“It’s selling nicely,” she said. “We see Cuba doing well.”

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