Barely a year after it began, Alaska Airlines will end its groundbreaking first west coast flights to Cuba.
The airline has applied to end flights on January 22, 2018. It began flights on January 5, 2017.
“Initially, my optimism seemed warranted,” said John Kirby, Alaska vice president of planning and alliances. He’s the company executive who looks for new opportunities and markets.
It took a few months for traffic to build, and by July 2017, Kirby says the once daily flight to Cuba was flying about 85 percent full. Then came the fall.
“In the fall period we started to see a precipitous drop off, and probably not helped by a very severe hurricane season,” said Kirby. “We found a lot of pent up demand started going away, and subsequently this decision on re-regulation.”
In early November, the Trump administration finalized its rules again restricting travel to Cuba. Americans can still travel there, but the revised rules largely restrict travel to organized tour groups, putting an end to much of the individual travel happening under educational or so called “people-to-people” exchanges opened up under the Obama administration.
The Trump administration has said its motive in limiting travel is designed to prevent cash from flowing to the Cuban military and leadership, particularly through ownership of certain hotels and restaurants.
Kirby says over 80 percent of the tickets his airline was selling was for individual travel, but he is not quick to blame Washington.
“We knew this was a real risk going in. We knew it was a very fluid environment,” he said, adding, “When traffic is embargoed for over 50 years there’s not a lot of data to go with.”
In other words, the Cuban market was hard to forecast, and some other U.S. airlines have also left Cuba.
The flights are regulated by both the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Cuban government. By giving up its slots in Havana, Kirby expects those slots will be taken up by other carriers. That said, he feels Alaska could again fly to this once completely forbidden territory for Americans.
“There are no absolutes in the airline business,” said Kirby. “So I wouldn’t rule out a re-entry if market conditions change.”