New York to restart direct flights to Cuba

NEW YORK (AFP) - Direct flights between New York and Havana are to resume next month when a US charter company seeks to profit from a growing rapprochement between the United States and Cuba.

A Boeing 747-800 will fly each Tuesday to and from John F. Kennedy International Airport and Havana, allowing travellers to end time-consuming stop-off journeys.

Cuba Travel Services decided in November to launch the route - before President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro surprised the world in December with plans to normalise ties.

"We had a good idea that change was kind of coming," general manager Michael Zuccato told AFP by telephone from California.

"So the timing was good."

On Jan 15, the US government eased travel restrictions, allowing certain Americans such as journalists, scholars, artists and athletes to visit Cuba without asking for a special licence.

Cuba Travel Services' first New York to Havana flight on March 17 has already sold 120 of the 162 seats available for the three hour, 40-minute journey, Zuccato said.

Prices start at US$849 (S$1,142), more expensive than flying to alternative destinations in the Caribbean, but Zuccato said it was competitive given the speed of the direct service and overheads involved.

In 1999, under president Bill Clinton, the US state department authorised direct flights to Cuba from New York and Los Angeles.

But over the years, charter services between Cuba and those cities were suspended due to costly overheads and paltry demand.

But Zuccato said the recent diplomatic overtures had generated "tremendous uptick in business."

"We expect the impact to be very positive. There's a tremendous amount of people wanting to travel to Cuba now," he said.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the region's airports, was not immediately available for comment.

Based in California, Cuba Travel Services already operates flights from Miami and Tampa to various airports in Cuba.

The New York flights will be manned by a Sun Country Airlines Boeing, a spokeswoman for the travel agency said.