Airlines Muted on Trump’s Cuba Travel Changes

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By Shaun Courtney

The Trump administration’s new and tougher restrictions on travel between the U.S. and Cuba were met with a muted response from major U.S. airlines, which have recently cut back on flights to the island nation after an early surge.

The administration announced changes June 16 that it says will halt the flow of money to “the core of the Castro regime"—the Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.

“I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” President Donald Trump said during a speech in Florida.

Travel Changes

The Obama administration created 12 categories of allowable travel to Cuba, including family visits, official government business, educational activities, and people-to-people cultural exchanges, among others. Under Trump’s policy, travel for non-academic educational purposes will be limited to group travel, while individual non-educational travel permitted under the Obama policy will be prohibited, according to a White House fact sheet. Family visits and remittances will still be permitted.

The policy memorandum directs the Treasury and the Commerce Department to begin the process of issuing new regulations within 30 days. The policy changes won’t take effect until those departments have finalized their new regulations, “a process that may take several months,” the White House said.

The trade group Airlines for America said it is “reviewing” the new directive and will comply with new regulations.

“We remain committed to advocating for policies that enable carriers to facilitate travel and trade and increase access to more markets and destinations globally. We will continue working with the administration to minimize any impact on the traveling public,” the group’s Vaughn Jennings told Bloomberg BNA in a statement.

Takeoffs, Descents

The U.S. travel industry embraced President Barack Obama’s move in December 2015 to ease travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba. The Obama administration negotiated 110 flights daily between the two nations, including 20 daily round-trip flights to Havana.

Last August, JetBlue Flight 387 between Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Santa Clara, Cuba, became the first commercial flight in 55 years between the two long-time foes.

Airlines including American Airlines Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., JetBlue Airways Corp., Southwest Airlines Co., and United Continental Holdings Inc., each began operating flights thanks to the eased travel restrictions. Recently, though, Spirit Airlines Inc., and Frontier and Silver Airlines have each stopped flying to Cuba and several others like American Airlines reduced their number of flights and the size of their planes.

Chamber of Commerce Opposes Move

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the policy shift hinders opportunities for economic growth in the U.S. and Cuba.

“U.S. private sector engagement can be a positive force for the kind of change we all wish to see in Cuba. Unfortunately, today’s moves actually limit the possibility for positive change on the island,” Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President and Head of International Affairs Myron Brilliant said in a statement.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz), whose Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 would remove all travel restrictions, also criticized the president’s announcement.

“Any policy change that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people,” Flake said in a statement.

He called on the Senate leadership to allow a vote on his bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

“The bill has 55 total co-sponsors and I am convinced it would pass the Senate with upwards of 70 votes,” Flake said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won’t be among those voting “yes"—he was on hand at the Florida speech to back the administration’s announcement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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