Airlines salivating at the possibility of Cuba flights

Airlines salivating at the possibility of Cuba flights
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Airlines are salivating at the prospect of being able to offer commercial flights to Cuba under a new agreement announced between the island nation and the U.S. 

Negotiators from the U.S. and Cuba said Wednesday they came to the informal agreement on restoring commercial airline service between the two nations during a meeting in Washington, D.C. They have said they hope to finalize the deal within hours or days, although Congress will still have to lift a decades-old Cuba travel ban, according to reports.

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U.S. airlines have said they are ready to offer flights to Cuba from domestic airports as soon as they get the green light. 

"Today's announcement is great news for our customers as it brings us one step closer to connecting the U.S. and Cuba with scheduled air service," American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said in a statement. 

"As the leading carrier to the Caribbean and the leading U.S. airline to Cuba, we look forward to establishing scheduled service to Cuba in 2016, from Miami and other American hubs," Parker continued. "We appreciate the administration's efforts and the hard work of the U.S. negotiators to reach this arrangement."

The move to allow commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba is the latest effort by the Obama administration to normalize relations between the countries, which have been engaged in a stalemate for more than 50 years. 

The Obama administration started approving 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 last December 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 loosened travel restrictions to Cuba earlier this year in executive actions aimed at relaxing economic embargoes. 

But travel to the communist nation remains illegal, unless one qualifies for an authorized trip for reasons such as business, journalism and religious work.

Travel groups said Thursday 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. 

"ASTA estimates at least two million additional Americans could visit Cuba by 2017 if Congress votes for a full lifting of travel restrictions before the end of this year," American Society of Travel Agents President Zane Kerby said in a statement. 

"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 fully repeal the travel ban once and for all," Kerby added.

U.S. airlines said Wednesday they will be glad to offer service to Cuba as soon as they are legally allowed. 

“Delta applauds the U.S. and Cuban governments on reaching an agreement that will allow scheduled service between our countries," Delta Airlines said in a  statement that was provided to The Hill. 

"We will work with the DOT on next steps and look forward to beginning service as soon as the opportunity becomes available,” the company concluded. 

— Bradford Richardson contributed to this report.