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Airlines gearing up to protect flights to Cuba

Airlines gearing up to protect flights to Cuba
BY MELANIE ZANONA – 01/31/17 06:00 AM EST 4

U.S. airlines began lobbying Washington on Cuba last year as they fought
to win commercial flight routes to the island nation for the first time
in 50 years.

But travel advocates expect to see an even bigger lobbying push around
the issue this year, with questions hanging over the new
administration’s policies, including whether President Trump will
reverse the historic opening of relations with Cuba.

Those concerns have the powerful airline industry, which invested a
significant amount of time and resources into competing for and setting
up the new flight routes, ramping up their efforts in Washington to
preserve those changes.
“The airlines will not cease their advocacy with respect to Cuba, but
they’re going to change their strategy from focusing on seeking more
[concessions] to focusing on preserving what they have,” said John
Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

More than a year after former President Barack Obama announced he was
restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. struck a deal with
the Cuban government in February 2016 to allow scheduled air service to
resume between the two countries.

The announcement sent the airline industry scrambling to secure slots —
activity that was reflected in their year-end lobbying disclosure forms,
filed last week.

JetBlue Airways, American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines
and Alaska Airlines all lobbied on Cuba at some point last year, as did
the trade group Airlines for America (A4A).

“Our members serve new and emerging markets all over the world, and our
focus is on ensuring an adequate framework is in place to help
facilitate the movement of people and goods between our two nations,”
said a spokesman for A4A, which represents most of the nation’s major
air carriers, with the exception of Delta Air Lines.

None of the companies had previously mentioned lobbying on the issue in
the last five years, with the exception of Alaska Airlines, which
started working on the “topic of renewal of U.S. commercial air carrier
service between U.S. and Cuba” in 2015.

“There was a time when U.S. companies, not just airlines, would do
whatever it took legally to avoid the ‘C’ word in the lobbying
disclosure forms,” Kavulich said. “It does show quite a bit of evolution
to see … the types of industries that haven’t been afraid to show that
they have an interest in Cuba.”

Delta didn’t specifically mention Cuba in its disclosure forms, but said
it lobbied on “International Air Service Rights Issues (U.S. Government
Bilateral Negotiations).” A spokeswoman for the airline said that
includes, but is not limited to, efforts around Cuba.

The competition for a limited number of slots turned fierce as airlines
submitted their proposals and took aim at their rivals. Delta, for
example, called American’s “request for ten (10!) of the 20 flights …
out of proportion,” while American called Southwest’s application
“seriously flawed.”

The biggest Cuba lobbying push from airlines came in the third quarter
of last year, which is when the Transportation Department finished
divvying up the 110 daily flights to the island.

Ultimately, 10 airlines were awarded flight routes, which included 20
daily round-trip flights to Havana and 10 flights to nine smaller
airports around the communist country. The carriers are: Alaska,
American, Delta, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit Airlines,
United, Sun Country Airlines and Silver Airways.

But being granted a flight route wasn’t the only hurdle for those
seeking air service to Cuba. Traveling to Cuba is still subject to
numerous restrictions, despite the new U.S. policy toward the island.

While the Obama administration loosened travel restrictions for
Cuban-Americans who are visiting family, as well as government
officials, journalists, students and volunteers on humanitarian
projects, tourism is still prohibited.

The airlines also found themselves playing defense against legislation
in Congress that would have halted commercial flights to Cuba until an
airport security review was conducted. U.S. airlines and A4A all
reported lobbying on that bill last year. The measure was advanced by
committee but never considered on the House floor.

“U.S. airlines have been critical in helping to lift 55 years of failed
policy,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba. “Now, with newly
re-established direct commercial service to 10 Cuban cities, we expect
the airline industry will continue to push for changes that will get rid
of arbitrary restrictions on traveling to Cuba.”

The industry could face even tougher battles this year, however.

Trump has threatened to reverse the opening of relations with Cuba if
the communist government doesn’t adopt changes, though he has not yet
revealed specific plans to change the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

“I have to follow up with you. We’ve got nothing that we’re ready to
announce at this point,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer
when he was recently pressed on the issue.

Any regulatory rollbacks could mean fewer aircraft passengers, hotel
guests and travel customers, which could all result in less revenue for
the airlines.

As a result, Kavulich expects air carriers to ramp up their lobbying
efforts — especially with lawmakers who represent their headquarters or
have Trump’s ear — in an effort to convince the new president to keep
the current policies in place.

“Last year, they were excited about the potential of getting more,”
Kavulich said. “This year, they’re hysterical over losing what they have.”

Source: Airlines gearing up to protect flights to Cuba | TheHill –
thehill.com/policy/transportation/316996-airlines-gearing-up-to-protect-flights-to-cuba

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