The US government just allowed an Icelandic airline to offer flights between the US and Cuba. But buying tickets comes with restrictions.

·3 min read
Icelandair Boeing 757-200
An Icelandair Boeing 757-200.Malcolm T Walls Photo's/Shutterstock.com
  • Icelandair may soon fly between the US and Cuba thanks to a Department of Transportation ruling.

  • US airlines objected to Icelandair's presence in the market, but they lost out in the end.

  • Travel to Cuba is notoriously restrictive because of ongoing sanctions.

North Americans now have another option when flying to Cuba.

Icelandair is known for connecting North America and Europe through its home country of Iceland. But a new route could see the flag carrier from the Land of Fire and Ice take passengers between Cuba and both Florida and Texas.

On January 13, the US Department of Transportation approved an application by Icelandair to fly 170 round-trip charter flights between Havana and the US cities of Miami, Orlando, and Houston.

The average American won't be able to simply buy a ticket on one of the flights as the US government limits the types of travel to Cuba that US citizens are permitted to do, the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control said, owing to continuing sanctions.

Travel for tourism purposes is prohibited for American citizens. Some permitted reasons for travel:

  • Family visits

  • Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations

  • Journalistic activity

  • Professional research

  • Education activities

  • Religious activities

  • Athletic competitions by amateur or semiprofessional athletes or athletic teams

  • 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

  • Certain authorized export transactions

US airlines object to Icelandair

US and foreign airlines can bid to operate flights between the US and Cuba under the DOT's public charter system for flights to Cuba, which allows 3,600 annual flights to operate from the US. But Icelandair's request to fly between two countries that aren't its homeland did not come without objection from US airlines.

Swift Air, World Atlantic Airlines, and Global Crossing Airlines — three US airlines that primarily offer charter services using passenger airliners — strongly objected to Icelandair's entry into the market.

"Icelandair's primary reason for seeking approval on an additional 170 flights over a four-month period is to impose an economic hardship on the current US air carriers," Mark Schneider, an attorney for Global Crossing Airlines, wrote to the DOT. Icelandair responded to Global Crossing and Swift Air by saying it wasn't taking slots away from any carriers, and that its charter partner had already ruled out other US carriers.

"With no other applications for allotment from the pool before the Department, Icelandair fails to understand how it is taking any market share to the detriment of US based carriers," Jonathan Fuchs, Icelandair's general counsel for the Americas, wrote to the DOT.

Icelandair said its advantage over US carriers was in the baggage holds of its Boeing 757 aircraft. Even with Icelandair's relatively large aircraft, 54 bags had to be left behind because of space constraints on its first flight from Orlando to Havana.

Carriers operating smaller aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families, Icelandair said, wouldn't be able to carry nearly the same amount of baggage. The DOT sided with Icelandair in the end and authorized the flights. It added that there were still additional slots open for which US airlines could apply.

Airlines have been adapting to the new reality of air travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and Icelandair has scaled back its transatlantic flying because of travel restrictions and fluctuations in demand as new coronavirus variants are found. The new route seeks to give Icelandair an additional revenue stream, even if the flights don't touch Iceland at all.

Icelandair plans to operate the 170 flights between February 1 and May 31.

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