JetBlue Wants The DOT To Revoke Alaska’s Route To Cuba

US airlines are just in the process of launching flights to Cuba for the first time in decades. There are a limited number of available slots, so the Department of Transportation had to go through a selection process to award the routes.

This was done in stages. The airlines had to put in requests for the slots they wanted. First the DOT awarded slots for all Cuba flights not to Havana, since the number of requests didn’t exceed the number of available slots. After that the DOT granted the rights for Havana slots, which was a much trickier selection process, given that there was a lot more demand from airlines than available slots.

Here are the Havana routes that got selected:

Cuba-Flights

Personally I think this is all a bit of a craze, and aside from the Florida to Cuba routes, flights to Cuba are going to be a big money loser for airlines. The infrastructure simply isn’t there for the hundreds of thousands of additional visitors. While many people will want to visit initially, I don’t think the demand is there for thousands and thousands of seats a day. At least that’s not the case under current conditions, given how crazy expensive hotels are.

Anyway, perhaps the most puzzling route to Cuba is Alaska’s Los Angeles to Havana flight. Not only is it the longest route between the US and Cuba (which makes the economics tough), but there isn’t a big Cuban population in Los Angeles (or on the west coast at all, for that matter) to help make the route sustainable.

When American initially requested their routes to Havana they included a once weekly flight from Los Angeles to Havana, which seemed more in line with what I’d expect in terms of demand for the route.

Nonetheless Alaska was granted the right to fly daily between Los Angeles and Havana, and JetBlue is now petitioning the DOT to take the route away from Alaska, and instead grant JetBlue the right to fly between Boston and Havana.

Alaska-737

Why? Because Alaska has requested to delay the launch date of their flight from November 29 to January 5 so they have more time to market the flight. Per Skift:

Generally, though not always, carriers do not object to a delay request from a competitor. But JetBlue on Thursday raised objections, noting that no other U.S. carrier has sought an extension. The U.S. and Cuban governments will permit only 20 daily flights to Havana, and airlines competed vigorously to serve the city. JetBlue won the right to fly to Havana from Fort Lauderdale, New York JFK, and Orlando, but not Boston.

“Every U.S. carrier involved in the Cuba frequency proceeding began the task of starting scheduled Cuba service from the same starting point and faced an identical timeline,” JetBlue said in its objection. “No other carrier is claiming ‘operational’ and commercial challenges as a basis for significantly delaying their start date.”

Alaska spokesman Bobbie Egan said in an email that Alaska is confident the government will approve its request. “As noted in our motion for extension, we believe early January will be more conducive to a successful service launch,” she said. In its filing, Alaska said the holiday season would be a particularly tough time to launch a new Havana route, as most Americans travel for leisure in the period, and “vacation” is not one of the 12 government-sanctioned reasons to visit Cuba.

One of the conditions of applying for slots to Cuba was that flights had to begin within a certain timeframe, and Alaska wants an extension of that. On one hand it is indeed true that they’re unlikely to do well on the route in the month of December. On the other hand, it seems to me like they’re unlikely to do well on the route ever, so… 😉 Furthermore, as stated above, all airlines are facing the same conditions, so I don’t see why Alaska should be special.

So, what’s JetBlue’s motive here? I imagine it’s a combination of a few things:

  • While the airlines have historically not competed much, keep in mind that Alaska and JetBlue got in a bidding war over Virgin America, so I imagine there’s pride on the line
  • JetBlue knows Alaska will lose money on the route for the month of December (and perhaps beyond that), and they want to see Alaska lose money
  • Even if the DOT doesn’t take away Alaska’s authority, JetBlue would like backup authority for their Boston to Havana route, meaning that if Alaska delays the flight further or cancels it, JetBlue will be granted the authority

JetBlue-A321

Interesting stuff. This whole situation is very similar to when American and Hawaiian fought over Delta’s Tokyo Haneda slot, as Delta wasn’t fully utilizing it.

Anyone else think Alaska’s Los Angeles to Havana route is doomed to fail, no matter when it actually launches?

Comments

  1. Well, as an Angeleno, I actually think the route has potential. It’s not that we have a Cuban population, but we have a huge population and one that, in my experience, wants to travel. In fact, some of my best friends from high school went to Cuba in college, and I know of several different LA-based groups that do annual Cuba trips. I feel like it’s not going to be a massive moneymaker (I feel like 2x/week would have been a better plan, but hey, I didn’t grant the slots), but there’s already so much East Coast-Cuba that ONE flight from California doesn’t seem like it’s worth a dispute.

    Also, they totally need time to market it. I don’t think I’ve heard anything about it outside of the blogosphere.

  2. Lucky, after Florida (Miami and Tampa) and New York, Los Angeles has the fourth largest concentration of Cuban Americans in the country.

  3. @ Jaymanlb — Right, but that’s not saying a whole lot. That’s still under 50,000 people, which is less than 5% of the Cuban population in the Miami area alone.

  4. As someone who grew up in Miami (and now lives in LA), I think the South Florida flights make sense. Even those seem oversubscribed (4X daily from Miami for just AA), but what do I know. The other markets are even more baffling. When I first saw the requested routes by the airlines, I was shocked, but now I see they were all probably asking for way more than they wanted just to make sure they got some routes. Still, we’re going from no general commercial service to nearly 20 flights a day to Havana. Can they really handle all this newfound tourism? No ramp up period at all…

  5. You also need to think of it in terms of a connection. I have previously travelled to Cuba from Sydney Australia, and had to do it via LAX and Mexico City. Now potentially, I could do it just via LAX. Very useful for us Australians, although, I’m not sure I will want to go there now it will be overrun by Americans (almost kidding).

  6. @2PAXfly – yeah, but how many people are going to look to connect at LAX for a flight from Asia to Havana? Not many, since there’s pretty much zero VFR traffic to Cuba from Asia and tourists have plenty of other beach destinations.

    I’m not actually sure why B6 would want to fly to HAV from BOS, at least not inititally – there’s all kinds of options from Europe to HAV already (for example, one-stop from European origin city to HAV on AF, KLM, Aeroflot, Air Europa, Iberia, even Avianca through BOG). Unless B6 thinks there’s a huge untapped market from a European city that has nonstops to BOS already that they could offer a connection to HAV to, I don’t see it, especially since many Europeans could do it already without having to deal with entering the US, getting the ESTA, and all that.

    I think B6 is mainly doing this just to mess with AS, and while I understand that, there’s better ways for JetBlue to go about it. Just undercut AS’ price from LAX to HAV with a cheap connection at MCO or FLL for starters.

  7. @Lucky, you are making the assumption that the only people who want to visit Cuba are Cuban-Americans/descendants of “Cubans-in-exile.” Nothing, IMHO, can be further from the truth. While it is true that a sizable percents of passengers from the US to Cuba will be Cuban-Americans and/or Cubans, they clearly won’t be the only ones onboard. And — regardless of the percentage of Cubans/Cuban-Americans residing in the LA metropolitan area — that area is estimated (as of July 1, 2015) to have a population of 18.7 million (See http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml) No one else is even planning to serve any destinations outside of the East Coast, Atlanta and Houston. And with Alaska’s existing routes (with or without Virgin America’s), LAX as a hub becomes a logical departure point.

    Now, you are correct in that December is *not* a good time to launch a new route to Cuba. @Victoria is also right — count me as one who has not seen any marketing/promotion/discussion of Alaska’s LAX-HAV flights outside of the “blogosphere,” but then I haven’t seen any from American Airlines either, and I could theoretically fly SFO-MIA-HAV . . . but apparently no one at American has seen fit to promote this route. (Have *they* promoted LAX-MIA-HAV, to stave off Alaska?)

    What does NOT make sense to ME (not that you asked) is ANY flight to Cuba that operates seven times a week, let alone 2x a day. And how long do you think it will be before the airlines figure out that 13x a day between Florida and Havana — on top of all the other Cuban airports being served — is too much?

    Finally, I would simply agree with @CraigTPA — JetBlue is just doing this to **** with Alaska . . . .

  8. Alaska also flies to Hawaii and many places in Central America. Generally these seem to be successful routes. I think Cuba just adds to that portfolio- maybe it’s more for West Coasters on vacation than repatriation.

    My problem is the scheduling of the Cuba flight means no connecting flights are possible. I mean, departures leave at 8:50am from LAX, and arrivals are at 8:45pm at LAX. Clearly they do that because they can use the same plane and give an hour to turn in Cuba, but.. that means the only originating cities are LAX and SEA (which is the true origin). If you wanted to fly from, say, Denver, or Portland, or Phoenix, you’re out of luck without an overnight stay near LAX.

    At that point, it’s much easier to hop to the east coast and then down.

  9. Lucky, I rarely disagree or call your slant on bias, but in this case you’re missing the fact that the BOS-HAV route makes much less sense than LAX-HAV. So, in this case I see more JetBlue pride here than any worthy reasoning.

  10. Agree with Lucky here. Airlines are really overestimating the demand IMHO. As someone who has been to Cuba prior to the detente, its not the ideal beach destination. Further complicating the issue of demand, how many Cubans refuse to go back to Cuba. My step dad is Cuba, born there and left when he was 4. He has been back once, but it was such a hassle to get permission, and he has no real close ties to the family still left there. Even my 96 year old grandmother, who had living siblings still in Santa Clara, only went back twice in 60 years, despite living in Miami.

  11. Mexico City has multiple flights to Cuba — and it’s pretty close to LA. Why it makes sense for Mexico City and wouldn’t make sense for LA?

    As for infrastructure, I absolutely agree. Visited Cuba in March and found super-long lines to cambios and security and overall awfully tiny airport. I can’t imagine what it will be like there this winter, when all American tourists will fly there all at once…

  12. @CraigTPA and Kelly and others. Australia is in Oceania, and Cuba is viewed by most here as a cultural destination not as a beach destination – we live on this very large temperate island that strangely enough is also surrounded by beaches. For the European market, I know this is different. Cuba has been the preserve of package tours direct to beach resorts. I think the presumptions that the relativities of Cuba as a package tour/VFR/cultural destination will change over time, and as infrastructure develops. Obviously all the airlines are betting on this, and want a toehold. My conjecture would be about nature of travel by populations on east and west coast of USA. Granted VFR travel would be less – maybe cultural tourism would be greater?

    . . . and then I suppose there’s the China market . . .

  13. I do agree that a lot of this is instant enthusiasm and will calm down. However, I see where LA is viable. Alaska has nicely built a system mini-hub there and when you feed in all the traffic on the West Coast why not? It’s not just about LA. I would much rather be on the fringe and providing the only service to Cuba from the entire West Coast rather than fight an unsustainable battle against everyone in the East.

  14. @Tedder — I agree that the timing of such [potential] flights departing out of/arriving in LAX (8:50am and 8:45 pm, respectively) may suck if you’re in “Denver, or Portland, or Phoenix”, but the same is true for many West Coast flights headed east to make connections — West Coast to East, making a connection onto Europe, for example, often means arriving for a departing flight out of SFO/LAX/SEA at 6:00 am, or even earlier!, in order to catch the connection. We in the West are sort of screwed on that score regardless.

    And it’s not just to go East — Alaska flies to Maui, for example, out of OAK at 7:15am (landing back at OAK at midnight!); out of SJC, it’s 8:40am (with a 10:40 pm return). Hawaiian Airlines out of OAK departs at 7:00am nonstop to Maui; from SJC, it’s 7:25am; and from SFO, it’s a more reasonable departure time of 10:15am. (Sigh . . . )

  15. I agree with Jason it’s not just the ex Cubans visiting family that would go there. The majority of you who have made comments are so wrong. Cuba is a vacation destination, probably the best beaches in the Caribbean for many Canadians and European travellers. We from Canada have been there a few times, winter, summer. The Cuban people are great, well educated, safe country to travel, huge hotels, food is good. Why are many US citizens so ‘closed minded’…Once you get to vacation there, you’ll want to go back. Only problem I see is that the airports might not be equipped to handle so many flights.

  16. 14 flights a day from Florida is just plane crazy. 😉

    People seem to have this nostalgic Disney World fantasy of Cuba, with it’s quaint 1950’s automobiles, and culture uncontaminated by corporate greed. Who is going to fill all of these flights when the first people return and word starts to spread that visiting Cuba is more like Haiti than San Miguel de Allende? There is just no infrastructure there to support that many daily passengers, and the government is in no hurry to develop it in a timely manner. If at all….

  17. I visited Cuba last November flying on a Jetblue charter plane from Florida (ABC charters) and recall there being so many Chinese tourists! I mean a lot! In addition, there were several Canadians and Europeans as well. My point is there is already a tourist infrastructure present in Cuba, especially if you include casa particulares. As for hotels, yes I agree there is a shortage but to truly experience Havana I think an airbnb or casa particular stay is essential. I stayed in a casa particular and loved it; whereas my friends stayed in an airbnb and they loved that experience as well.
    Anyway, as for the LAX-HAV flight, I think people from Asia would prefer to have that one-stop in LAX and then a flight to HAV. Then again, Air China also has that flight from Canada right?
    One thing to note is in addition to all those DOT slots, the charters are surprisingly still in operation. Not sure if they’ll all end by the time all these Havana flights are in operation but as of right now they’re booking flights for the next 8 weeks or so. Back last November, a roundtrip charter flight from FL to Havana was around $450 r/t.

  18. LA has double the number of Cubans as say Houston, but double the population the percentage is about equal, about 0.2 %, so both those cities have the LOWEST Cuban population demographics in the USA. (see https://www.google.com/search?q=ethnic+us+map+cuban+demographics&biw=1157&bih=918&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiI3paOzsnQAhUBUCYKHecsDk8Q7AkILg#tbm=isch&q=united+states+cuban+demographics&imgrc=4LXxMwruDaIXyM%3A) I don’t see LAX as a viable point any more frequently than a weekly flight, at least for now, like IAH or DFW. ATL needs dailies because it is the biggest airport in the world, and because the main demographics to Cuba are on the East Coast/Florida. I really don’t think the Asian markets make much of a dent in the argument, and besides, there are flights to IAH, DFW, ATL, ORD, and DTW to and from those markets. LAX is clear on the other side and far away from tapping the passenger load. Furthermore, LAX is a nightmare, and the people of LA have long deserved a MUCH better airport. I have gone through it, and to it, numerous times. It is so 1960’s. No inter-terminal trains in the secure area that I could find. You can walk 6 light years between terminals, take a cab like Manila’s Ninoy Aquino, or take a shuttle bus and perhaps deal with traffic again. Traffic is so horrendous that it’s full of frightful wondering if you will even make it, even if you get within 300 yards of the Century Blvd entrance 3 hours ahead. Once in, you have to maneuver around the perpetual decades long construction project (see http://www.lawa.org/welcome_lax.aspx?id=1878 and it is still going), unfinished drywall and plywood, even in the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Having gone through that place I thought it an embarrassment to the name of our country’s greatest and most beloved Mayors. Plywood corridors, hidden gates, I was sure my flight some years ago to Kuala Lumpur was at the other end, despite gate numbering. I love LA but this seems an unworkable and impractical decision based on bias I believe. Give it to another city on the East coast…BOS, PHL…etc.

  19. ANd lest we forget, regarding “both” the East Coast and West Coast, we also have a GULF Coast, including Houston, New Orleans, and Tampa, which adjoins the island Nation in question…

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