By Keith Laing - 02/16/16 11:12 AM EST
The Obama administration is inviting U.S. airlines to apply for flights between domestic airports and Cuba.
Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxDeadly NJ train crash puts spotlight on lack of safety technology Driverless cars are coming, the federal government must act Five takeaways from the new driverless car guidelines MORE said airlines will be able to apply to operate 20 daily flights between the U.S. and Havana and 10 round trips between domestic airports and other Cuba destinations.
"We are excited to announce the availability of new scheduled air service opportunities to Cuba for U.S. carriers, shippers, and the traveling public, and we will conduct this proceeding in a manner designed to maximize public benefits,” Foxx said in a statement.
Airlines have been salivating at the prospect of being able to offer commercial flights to Cuba.
“American Airlines commends the U.S. government for its commitment to re-establishing cultural and economic ties between the U.S. and Cuba, and for laying the groundwork to restore scheduled air service between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years,” American Air CEO Doug Parker said in a statement.
“We applaud the Administration for making commercial air service a priority and we thank Secretary Foxx, Secretary Kerry and their teams for their leadership in finalizing this arrangement," he continued. "American looks forward to submitting a Cuba service proposal to the Department of Transportation in the coming weeks.”
Negotiators from the U.S. and the inland nation reached an informal agreement on restoring commercial airline service between the two nations in December, although they cautioned that Congress would still have to lift a decades-old Cuba travel ban before air service could be restored to traditional levels.
The DOT said Tuesday that airlines will have until March 2 to apply to operate Cuba flights.
The agency said travel to Cuba will have to fit one of 12 categories: "family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions."
The Obama administration started approving Cuban flights to and from airports such as New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in the president’s first term.
The administration said in December 2014 it would permit every type of travel possible to Cuba under existing legislation, but officials noted then a full repeal of the travel ban would require an act of Congress.
Obama further loosened travel restrictions to Cuba last year in executive actions aimed at relaxing economic embargoes.
Travel to the communist nation remains illegal, unless one qualifies for an authorized trip for reasons such as business, journalism or religious work.
Travel groups said the move to allow commercial flights would allow a boom in tourism for the U.S. and Cuba if Congress signs off on the deal between the Obama administration and Cuban officials.
"Resuming commercial air travel will benefit American consumers and the ASTA travel agents who serve them," American Society of Travel Agents President Zane Kerby said in a statement.
"We estimate at least two million additional Americans could visit Cuba by 2018 if Congress were to lift the travel ban before the end of this year," he continued. "While U.S. law still prohibits travel to Cuba for tourist activities, we are encouraged by the continued progress made by the Obama Administration, and we strongly urge Congress to enact the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act and fully repeal the travel ban once and for all."
This story was updated at 1:36 p.m.