Virgin Atlantic is my preferred airline to travel between the UK and Cuba, which I have done many times since 2011, and our baby due at Christmas will have her first taste of Virgin travel in March next year, when my husband and I bring her home to Havana to meet all the family. So while I am in the UK, waiting to have the birthing experience that suits me best (see later blog post), I see that I have missed Richard Branson’s visit to the island.
I sincerely hope that changes in the US airline industry, together with current US politics towards Cuba, do not affect Virgin’s flight schedule to the UK, our lifeline from home to home!
Alaska Airlines took over Virgin America last year in a $2.6m merger, and this year it was confirmed Alaska will take over all Virgin America flights. Today I read that Alaska Airlines will stop flying to Cuba as of 22 January 2018. Its inaugural flight to Cuba – Los Angeles to Havana in 5 hours – was in January 2017 and I had the privilege to tour lead the first passengers, a plane full of Alaska Airlines employees excited to experience the result of their hard work to win that potentially lucrative route. I also made use of this new direct route to attend a college reunion this summer in Los Angeles, delighted to find old friends within such easy reach by plane finally. When JetBlue finally opened up direct New York – Havana flights last year, I took the first opportunity to catch a plane for 3 1/2 hours and visit old friends, having missed out on years of seeing these friends because I was based in Cuba. It all proved a little too late, as I just used one of the still remaining direct flights to attend the funeral of one of those friends, who died early in life of cancer apparently related to the effects of 9/11. Before the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba under Obama in 2015/2016, and the first regular commercial flights between the two countries since the Cold War, the only way was to fly to a third country, very expensive and over 20 hours travel time.
However, President Trump brought in new regulations last week that put an end to independent travel by Americans to Cuba, and Alaska Airlines estimate that 80% of their passengers were just that – curious-minded Americans travelling not in a tour group, which has made up the bulk of my work for over 5 years, but individuals keen to explore this once-forbidden territory. Well, it’s forbidden again, folks, and because of some dumb-ass politics that make sense to no one.
Sun Country, Spirit, Frontier Airlines and Silver Airlines have all ceased travel to the island, and America, Sunwest and JetBlue have all reduced their flights to Cuba. After a year of uncertainty around Trump’s proposed rolling-back of Obama’s measures to improve relations with Cuba, plus a summer of hard-hitting Caribbean hurricane activity, this is no surprise, I suppose. My husband experiences this drop in visitor numbers to the island first-hand as the director of a music group playing in a restaurant in Old Havana. There were many days in August to October where not a soul entered the restaurant, yet the band has to keep on playing. Our fledgling AirBnb business is also not seeing the amount of interest yet that I feel sure it would have seen a year or two ago. Most of the enquiries we have now are from Latin Americans, Cuban Americans or Europeans, but a year ago you couldn’t walk in the streets in Havana without hearing excitable American accents around you (they weren’t Canadian, I checked, plus the Canadians tend to stick to the all-inclusive resorts). Cubans with 5 year US visitor visas have also been travelling to the US in lesser numbers, waiting to see what would happen with new regulations. When those visas expire, those Cubans will now need to travel to a third country to renew those same visas, following the US government’s indefinite suspension of visa processing in Cuba, blamed on a spate of alleged ‘sonic’ attacks on US embassy employees in Havana. The overall picture then is not looking good…