The past several months saw a flurry of activity surrounding commercial air travel between the US and Cuba. A new bilateral agreement was reached, slots were allocated and inaugural flights flown. All that action came from the north side of the Straits of Florida; Cubana, the island nation’s flag carrier, did nothing at all. Given the perceived demand for these services the lack of activity is slightly bizarre. But there are two good justifications available, one of which may change very soon.
The lack of true demand is something that will not really be addressed until the US formally changes its rules and opens unfettered tourism travel to Cuba. Yes, the current rules are relatively lax and the self-certification process is easy to meet. But it is still not a proper free market and that will keep demand depressed. This will affect Cubana and the US carriers, though the latter group is generally sitting on piles of cash right now so they can afford to ride it out for at least a short while.
The second consideration is that any Cubana aircraft that lands on US soil is a target for legal or economic action. There are pending cases regarding expropriation of Cuban nationals’ money and property related to the 1959 revolution and some believe that an aircraft could be seized to help settle those debts. And that’s where this story becomes very interesting. Apparently Air Nostrum, a Spanish carrier, wants to help Cubana solve that problem by bringing its EU-flagged aircraft in to operate the routes. Because the assets are not owned by Cubana the theory is that they would not be subject to seizure.
Of course, many questions remain with this plan. Even if the planes are not owned by Cubana there are many other operational requirements – ground handling, marketing, etc. – that would require the company to spend real money in the USA and those would potentially all be at risk. And the proposed CRJ-200 aircraft are about as uncomfortable an option as is available in the market today; the smallest planes from the US carriers are ~3x the capacity. Maybe not a ton more comfortable, but able to handle the cargo/baggage loads and provide a bit of headroom on board.
Yes, the Air Nostrum planes might help Cubana avoid some of the legal challenges. But that still doesn’t mean this is a good idea.