Commercial airlines hope cheaper tickets give them competitive edge in flights offered to Cuba

Airline Brokers owner says commercial flights should have started sooner

MIAMI – The first daily commercial flight to Cuba begins Wednesday with JetBlue as the airline takes off for the city of Santa Clara.

American Airlines will be one of the first commercial airlines to have multiple flights in and out of the island. 

Americans have been flying to Cuba for more than two decades now by way of charter service.

"Our hub here in Miami is uniquely positioned to serve the region and to serve Cuba specifically," American Airlines vice president Ralph Lopez said.

Lopez said the difference now is booking is made easy.

"You book your flight as you would with any other flight," he said.

But unlike most destinations, traveling to Cuba takes a bit more work.

"There are still restrictions to travel to Cuba," Lopez said.

Travelers must fit into one of 12 categories in the people-to-people program.

Those in the travel industry said most, if not all of those who want to travel to Cuba will fit into one of those categories.

Passengers must also get a visa or what's often referred to as a tourist landing card, which is an additional cost.

American Airlines charges $85 for the landing card.

"We want to make sure that travel to Cuba for our customers is as seamless as possible," Lopez said.

That's why American Airlines is working with Cuba Travel Services, a charter company, which will help travelers with all the needed paperwork.

"They'll be contacting customers three days in advance to make sure they're Cuba ready," Lopez said.

That includes the tourist landing card and insurance required by the Cuban government.

American Airlines has not yet set a price on the insurance.

"We'll stamp your boarding pass, saying you're Cuba ready and you're on to your gate," Lopez said.

Passengers will only be allowed two checked bags, a carry-on and a personal item.

That is not expected to be an issue for American travelers, but it will likely be a challenge for Cuban-American travelers who often take back electronics and other necessities for their families.

Charter flights still allow overweight and oversized bags, which some argue keeps those companies still relevant and competitive.

"We'll continue to evaluate those over time and make adjustments as the market demands change," Lopez said.

Commercial airlines are hoping their cheaper ticket prices will give them a competitive edge.

Vivian Mannerud, who is called a pioneer in the charter industry, said commercial flights to Cuba should have happened sooner.

She has sometimes paid the price for her work, as was the case when her Coral Gables office burned down in 2012 in an apparent fire-bombing incident.

Mannerud believes she was targeted because of her trips to Cuba.

Mannerud started Airline Brokers, a charter company offering flights to Cuba, in 1982.

"The charter flights really began during the Carter Administration but there wasn't a demand," she said.

She said she was flying 10 times a week to Cuba by 1984.

Mannerud said it remains to be seen what will happen to charter companies once daily commercial flights take off.

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