The US Department of Transportation (DOT) issued tentative allocations for re-assigned US-Havana, Cuba frequencies March 30 to five carriers, including a major boost for United Airlines’ service from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), with frequencies jumping from once a week to daily.

Other carriers awarded new frequencies included Dallas/Fort Worth-based American Airlines, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, New York-based JetBlue Airways, and Dallas-based Southwest Airlines.

The allocations, which must be implemented within 90 days of the government’s still-to-be-granted final approval, included:

  • One additional daily service frequency to American’s Miami-Havana route, hefting service to 5X-daily on the route;
  • One additional daily service frequency to Delta’s Miami-Havana route, up to 2X-daily;
  • Six weekly frequencies to JetBlue’s Fort Lauderdale-Havana route, bringing service on the route up to 2X daily;
  • One newly established weekly frequency for a JetBlue Boston-Havana route, on Saturdays only, which “would establish a new gateway to Havana at a major northeastern city that is home to healthcare, biotechnology and educational institutions that JetBlue and Massport assert could support authorized travel outside of the family visits category,” DOT said;
  • One additional daily frequency for Southwest’s Fort Lauderdale-Havana route, up to 3X-daily;
  • Six weekly frequencies for United’s Houston-Havana route (Sunday through Friday), which brings United service on the route to/from Houston to daily status.

The frequencies were made available after several carriers—Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines—terminated certain flights out of the up to 20 frequencies initially awarded in August 2016, following the re-opening of US-Cuba relations the prior year.

Airlines granted US-Cuba flights in the initial flurry of renewed passenger service between the two countries gradually trimmed services as market expectations did not pan out as hoped following the first flights, by American and JetBlue, in November 2016. Ultra LCCs Frontier and Spirit each terminated their Cuba flights, as did Fort Lauderdale-based Silver Airways.

DOT noted in its review of applications for the new routes that it found the US-Cuba market to still be in a developmental period. “Carriers have been adjusting schedules and capacity, and some have left the market altogether,” DOT said. “Adding to the still evolving nature of the market the [Trump] administration announced a change in its policy toward Cuba and implemented regulations that, among other things, ended the widely used authorization for ‘individual people-to-people’ travel to Cuba.”

Based on what it called shifting circumstances affecting US-Cuba air travel, as well as varying carrier reactions to the market, DOT concluded “that the available traffic data and limited service history at Havana are not sufficient to draw specific conclusions as to the likelihood of future success or failure for any given proposal.”

“On that basis,” DOT said, “the public interest would be best served by … allocating limited rights in developmental markets, i.e., allocating the available frequencies to a variety of carriers and allowing them to seek to develop the market.”

United’s Houston-Havana market comes out as a big winner in the new frequency allotments, with service now upped from Saturday-only flights to daily flights. DOT cited the withdrawal of Alaska Airlines’ Los Angeles-Havana route as a factor in its decision-making.

"[The] selection of United will give consumers in the central and western US a daily one-stop connecting option to Havana [at] United’s strong hub at Houston, and would be consistent with [DOT’s] goal of providing maximum choices for the traveling public” DOT said. “Houston [is] the only point west of the Mississippi [River] with nonstop service to Havana.”

United said it plans to operate service between Houston and Havana with either Boeing 737-800 mainline aircraft or Embraer E175 regional aircraft operated by Mesa Airlines flying as United Express.

Mark Nensel