Expert: Flights to Cuba should continue

Aviation expert John Grant considers that Americans’ interest in traveling to Cuba “remains high,” although today it “isn’t looking as bright,” he affirms.

In an article published in the specialized AviationPros site, Grant analyses the causes of the reduction in the number of flights experienced in recent months, after the peak reached in January 2017. At that time 160,648 sold seats were registered, a figure that has gone down to an average of 135,000 monthly seats.

For Grant, an analyst whose works have appeared in major publications like The New York Times, CNN, USA Today, BBC and the Financial Times, the reason for the decrease of “promising routes” is a logical adjustment of the market, a consequence of the possible assessments and tests carried out by the airlines after half a century without regular flights between both countries.

“Looking at the data is easy, but when a market has been closed for over 50 years, preemptively judging the possible demand for a destination is no simple task,” according to Grant.

Grant recalls that before the normalization of bilateral relations announced in December 2014, that year the number of air bookings between the United States and Cuba was a bit over 24,000 through charter flights mostly departing from Miami International Airport.

However, after the authorization of regular flights by the Obama administration, there was a notable increase in bookings. The climax was reached starting December 2016, coinciding with the so-called peak tourism season – despite the fact that Americans are not legally permitted to travel to the island as tourists – when the airlines offering regular service to Cuba increased to 10 and there was a considerable growth in the number of routes and bookings.

The companies that started flying to the island include American Airlines, Frontier, JetBlue, Delta, Spirit and Southwest. After arriving in Havana in November, in February American Airlines decided to open a commercial office in the Cuban capital.

“Never have so many aviation industry experts seen a market expand so rapidly,” Grant says.

He points out that factors like the short distance between Cuba and Florida – where there is a very important Cuban community – could have had an influence in that expansion, as well as the island’s tourist potentials – for accommodations and entertainment – and Cuba’s growing popularity as a destination.

Another element to which the expert points when analyzing this phenomenon is the lowering of prices, which forms part of the competition to dominate the new market.

With the rise of the low-cost carriers, he points out, “travelers are more willing to travel to destinations they might not have previously considered…. Thus, when airlines, especially budget operators, add new flights, it generates interest and curiosity among travelers.”

Grant’s assessments coincide with a study by the British aviation data provider OAG published in May, according to which the sudden December and January peak was not in keeping with the market’s real possibilities.

For OAG, there were difficulties to preview and assess the real demand, intensified by the competition and the wish to take advantage of a new market in expansion.

The study highlights that the traditional and low-cost airlines need to add services to build their networks, the small niche companies see specific opportunities and some operators stick their finger in the water to see if they can generate some profits and that that is probably what happened between the United States and Cuba.

BEHIND THE REDUCTIONS

The up to 20-percent decrease in bookings, after the boom of some months ago, made the alarm go off in several media. Actually, the reductions had started even before – already in the final months of 2016 some airlines had cut down on their flight destinations -, due to the demand’s evident overestimation.

However, John Grant is not an alarmist with what he considers part of the logic of the aviation industry. As proof of this, the expert notes that “a few months ago, while some airlines were looking to pull out on some of their routes to Cuba, others were prepared on the sidelines, waiting to snatch them up.”

From his point of view, right now “it seems” many of the airlines that fly to the island are opting “for at least some routes.”

According to the numbers managed by Grant, between October and December of last year there were 1,456 flights to Cuba, while this summer only 1,275 were programmed. In his opinion, this is “a classic thing” when new markets open.

The airlines, says the expert, “test” the market and can reduce their frequencies and its routes “to the major city pairs.” However, he recognizes that “over time, some of those routes may actually grow back to the initial levels.”

In that sense he notes that the Havana flights have an advantage over other destinations on the island.

“Though not up-to-date compared to U.S. standards,” he affirms, “the international airport in Havana is still the most equipped to handle the capacity of incoming flights and passengers from the U.S., and thus remains the most popular arrival destination for travelers and airlines.”

Grant does not turn his back on the changes announced by the Trump administration and their possible repercussion on travel to the island. However, in his opinion closing the Cuban market to the U.S. airlines seems like a contradiction.

“U.S. airlines have invested considerably in both capacity and marketing to advertise their services. Would the government want to risk upsetting the market with a complete policy overhaul? Should travel policies to Cuba be reversed, airlines could stand to lose millions of dollars, and the direct and indirect impacts felt would be widespread,” he points out.

On the other hand he notes that “just because the U.S.-Cuban market may be at risk doesn’t mean other markets are.” The expert considers that “from a global scale,” the aviation industry is seeing “continued interest” from the European Union and Canada in Cuba, “especially when other popular travel markets are facing threats like terrorism.”

Compared to the 116,100 bookings from Europe to the island in July 2016, this year they went up over 25 percent to more than 145,200. “Travel from France and the UK has risen over 60 percent and 44 percent,” Grant said when comparing it to the previous year’s July.

Based on this data, he does not believe the number of flights to Cuba will decrease but rather the contrary. And in the face of a possible scenario of the prohibition of regular flights from the United States or a drastic reduction in them, U.S. travelers could seek other variants to fly to the island.

“Since there is capacity available, travelers will find other ways to get to Cuba if direct air service is no longer available,” Grant affirms.

To date this year, more Americans have traveled to Cuba than those who did so in 2016. In May the figure rose to more than 284,999, which in technical terms equaled the number of visits registered last year.

The changes toward the island announced in June by President Trump – and which still have not come into force -, preview some restrictions in the authorized categories for Americans to visit Cuba, like individual people-to-people travel and group educational travel.

However, the airline bookings have not been affected.

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