For the first time in nearly 50 years, Americans will be able to simply purchase a ticket to Cuba from an ordinary airline.
On Tuesday, US and Cuban officials met in Havana to do away with long-standing barriers that banned regular US commercial carriers from operating on the island.
US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who traveled to Havana to ink the deal, said it marked "a historical day in the relationship between Cuba and the US." Cuban Transportation Minister Yzquierdo Rodriguez said Tuesday's deal was a key step to "the establishment of regular flights between the United States and Cuba."
Though it is now technically possible to travel to Cuba from the US, the routes are restricted to charter flights. Flights operated by commercial air carriers could begin operating as early as next fall. US airlines will be given a 15-day window to bid on many as 110 daily flights between the US and Cuba.
Another round of talks to iron out the details of the agreement are scheduled for the coming days in Washington, DC.
The US has imposed a crippling embargo on Cuba since late 1960, almost two years after Fidel Castro led a revolution against of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Easing tensions with Cuba has been a major foreign policy priority for President Barack Obama. Toward the end of 2014, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced that they would take steps to normalize relations between the two countries. Obama is expected to visit the island as early as March.
Despite the current travel restrictions, nearly 160,000 Americans flew to Cuba last year, and hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans made the trip to visit relatives using special charter services or flying indirectly through nearby countries. Direct commercial flights are expected to make the journey much easier, though technically US travelers must provide a reason for their trip apart from tourism. That barrier is now seen as a mere technicality, however. Commercial airlines will allow anyone to simply check an online box to give their reason for a visit: "organizing a professional meeting" or "distributing information to Cubans" are both considered valid.
US air carriers are eager to jump on the new opportunity. American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said his company has plans to bid on routes from Miami and other unspecified American hubs. United, Spirit Airlines, Southwest, and Delta all announced that they would bid for routes.
JetBlue also plans to bid, and its spokesman Doug McGraw said on Tuesday that "interest in Cuba has reached levels not seen for a generation."
Nevertheless, Tuesday's agreement does not clear the way for Cuban airlines to make the trip to the US. Any such arrangement could prove quite challenging, since those airlines are largely controlled by the Cuban government, and many Cuban exiles in the US — whose money and property were confiscated during the Cuban revolution — have filed lawsuits to seize any Cuban government assets that touch down on US soil.