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US and Cuba ink deal to restore regular flights

After more than half a century, the United States and Cuba have agreed to restart commercial air traffic between the two countries. The deal allows for more than 100 flights daily to Havana and other destinations.

United States Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Cuban Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez signed the agreement in a ceremony at Havana's Hotel Nacional on Tuesday.

The deal, which officials called a memorandum of understanding, allows US airlines to start bidding for as many as 110 flights a day - more than five times the current number, which are all chartered flights. Destinations are Cuba's capital Havana as well as nine other cities on the island.

During the ceremony, Anthony Foxx described the agreement as an "historic day" in the relationship between the two former enemies, adding: "It represents a critically important milestone in the US effort to engage with Cuba."

His Cuban counterpart said the accord marked "the start of a new era in air transport links, which will contribute to the

deepening of ties between the two countries."

Washington and Havana restored diplomatic ties in July after a 54-year break, but commerce remains limited by the US trade embargo, which includes a ban on American tourism to the Communist-led island.

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Cuba prepares for wave of US tourists

Mounting interest

Shortly after the signing, JetBlue Airways, American Airlines, United Airlines and budget carrier Spirit Airlines expressed their interest, with the most competition expected for the 20 round-trip flights between US cities and Havana.

US airlines have until March 2 to submit route applications to the US Transportation Department, which is likely to decide by the summer who can fly from which US cities to Havana. The department said it would attempt to "maximize public benefit" in assigning the flights.

However, tourist travel is still barred under the trade embargo that the US imposed on Cuba in 1960 after Fidel Castro came to power in a revolution. The US Treasury Department has set 12 categories of authorized travel, including, for example, educational and religious activities as well as organizing professional meetings.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs Brandon Belford said Cuban airlines would still have to obtain their own licenses from US authorities. "So we do not anticipate Cuban-owned aircraft serving the US in the near future," he added.

uhe/hg (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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