HAVANA – American airline Alaska Air began flying commercially to Cuba on Thursday with daily flights linking Los Angeles and the Cuban capital Havana, following the resumption of regular flights between the two countries in August 2016 after half a century.
The new route makes Alaska Air the eighth airline authorized to operate regular flights to Cuba by the United States administration led by Barack Obama, who leaves office on Jan. 20.
Francisco Albiter, the operator’s general manager for Mexico and Costa Rica, said in the Cuban capital this route has “significant market potential,” given that Los Angeles and the U.S. West Coast are home to not only the third-largest community of Cuban-Americans, but also a sizeable U.S. population interested in cultural ties with the island.
Albiter told local media that response from the public has been very favorable and exceeded expectations, and added 80 percent of tickets to Havana for the next three months have already been booked.
Such a high percentage is unusual for a new route, especially when dealing with a country where the airline had no previous presence, he added.
He also said Alaska Air will fly the new and modern Boeing 737-900ER planes on this route, but said flights to other Cuban cities are not on the cards presently as the company wants to familiarize itself with the infrastructure in the Caribbean nation first.
General director of Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, Juan Carlos Quintana, who came out to welcome the inaugural flight, said a record number of travelers was recorded in 2016 at the airport.
He highlighted that until two years ago, the airport received, on an average, 50 international flights daily, while today the number is 90, and surpasses 100 on some days.
Regular flights to Cuba, result of a civil aviation agreement that followed the Havana-Washington diplomatic thaw, began on Aug. 31 last year with a JetBlue flight between Florida and Santa Clara.
Since that day, other operators – American Airlines, Silver Airways, Delta, United Airlines, and Southwest – have begun flying to different cities, including Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Holguin, Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba and Varadero.