How Does Trump Cuba Policy Change Affect Travelers & Airlines?

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Just a month after lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill that would open up Cuba to tourist travel following the 2016 decision to end the all-out travel ban, the Trump administration has outlined a proposal that would restrict the small amount of tourist travel currently allowed, potentially throwing a wrench in airlines’ business in the country.

President Trump is issuing a directive today that is intended to roll back the Obama White House’s plan to gradually loosen travel restrictions to the island nation.

The directive will outline stricter enforcement of an existing travel ban relating to American tourists in order to prevent U.S. dollars from being used by the Cuban government, an administration official said at a briefing Thursday afternoon.

“The new policy makes clear that the primary obstacle to the Cuban people’s prosperity and economic freedom is the Cuban military’s practice of controlling virtually every profitable sector of the economy,” the White House said Friday. “President Trump’s policy changes will encourage American commerce with free Cuban businesses and pressure the Cuban government to allow the Cuban people to expand the private sector.”

Restrictions On Individual Travel

While tourism to Cuba is still officially banned, under the recently relaxed rules, individuals — particularly students and researchers — may apply to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for permission to travel to Cuba.

But OFAC confirmed today that the President intends to cease giving permission for individual students who are not traveling specifically as part of a degree or exchange program.

OFAC says that not only will educational visits to Cuba be restricted to groups, but that these groups must “maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that are intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”

Additionally, these groups must travel with some sort of supervisor who will ensure that these full-time studies are undertaken.

OFAC has always required that Americans who travel under these “people-to-people” exceptions retain records related to their travel and expenses for several years after completing their trips. However, that requirement has largely been ignored in recent months. It’s expected that Treasury will now be more strict about making sure travelers keep these records.

The White House’s policy change not go into effect until OFAC has written new rules, which will take some time. Thus, today’s declaration will not affect anyone who is already approved for individual educational travel in the near future.

Fewer Flights?

Administration officials have said that the policy won’t cut off commercial flights to Cuba, which began just last year. However, it could result in fewer people traveling to the country, as restrictions and uncertainties on future travel — and what people can do in the country — will likely put further strain on the airlines, many of which have already either reduced their capacity or pulled out of flying to the Cuba.

Currently there are six airlines — American, United, Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska — that fly to Cuba. Sun Country, which as been approved for travel to the country, delayed flights until this winter.

Spirit, Silver, and Frontier each dropped service to Cuba earlier this year amid waning demand. Additionally, JetBlue and America revised their flights, shifting to smaller jets to minimize the number of empty seats, for the same reason.

When reached for comment about today’s announcement, a rep for Delta told Consumerist the airline “will adhere to any changes in the regulations announced by the Trump Administration regarding travel to Cuba and continue to provide daily non-stop service… within those parameters.”

A rep for Alaska Airlines tells us the company is “reviewing the President’s announcement to determine what, if any, effect this will have on customers flying between Los Angeles and Havana.” Similarly, a statement from United only explains that, “We are currently reviewing these policy changes and will continue to follow this closely.”

JetBlue operated the first commercial U.S. flight to land in Cuba after decades of embargo. In a statement to Consumerist, the airline says it is “committed to continuing air service between the U.S. and Cuba. We plan to operate in full compliance of the president’s new policy. We will review the policy and the specific regulations once they are available to determine any impact to our operations or to our customers.”

American says it is “committed to continuing to operate service to Cuba,” but like the other carriers it is “reviewing the executive order to understand any potential impacts to our customers or our current service.”

“We will continue to comply with federal law and work with the Administration to update our policies and procedures regarding travel to Cuba as necessary,” reads the American statement emailed to Consumerist. “Until the new regulations are in place, the current travel policy will remain in effect, including travel requirements for our customers, who must obtain a visa to travel to Cuba. However, future changes in regulation may affect travel initiated from today forward. We urge all customers who are planning travel to Cuba to closely monitor updates from the U.S. government.”

Southwest has yet to respond to our request for comment.

Airlines 4 America (A4A), an industry group that represents five of the affected carriers that fly to Cuba, says its member airlines are “reviewing the President’s directive and will continue to comply with all federal rules and regulations regarding travel to Cuba.”

A rep for A4A says the industry will work with the administration to “minimize any impact on the traveling public.”

Cutting Off Cuba

Lawmakers were quick to share their opinions of the directive. Sen. Pat Leahy (VT), who served as a co-sponsor to the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 [PDF] legislation, called the move a “hollow retreat from normalization that takes a swipe at Americans’ freedom to travel, at our national interest, and at the people of Cuba who yearn to reconnect with us – all just to score a political favor with a small and dwindling faction here at home.”

The Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 aimed to ease the hurdles Americans traveling to the country faced and address the current ban on banking transactions to Cuba.

(Updated to include comments by United, JetBlue, American, and Alaska Airlines.)

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