Considering Cuba?

The best restored vintage cars serve as taxis for tourists in Havana. Photo: Harriet Baskas

In early January I joined Alaska Airlines for the first scheduled flight to Havana from a west coast city – Los Angeles – in over 50 years. Here’s the CNBC story that came from that adventure.

Photo by Harriet Baskas

Last week, the newly inaugurated Trump administration warned it was in the middle of a “full review” of U.S. policy toward Cuba—prompting new questions about how committed President Donald Trump will be to the political and cultural thaw began under his predecessor.

However, uncertainty over Trump’s Cuba policy did not prevent American Airlines from opening a ticket office in Havana this week, a mere two months after the carrier flew the first scheduled commercial flight from the U.S. to Havana since 1961.

American’s new outpost in Cuba underscores how both U.S. fliers and air carriers are rushing to make the most of the first real opening between the two countries in decades—despite lingering questions about whether that thaw will continue in the Trump era.

 “We cannot speculate about what [Trump’s] next step will be, but I can assure you that we are moving our machine forward,” said Galo Beltran, Cuba manager for American Airlines told the Associated Press, “You are a witness to the investment and how important Cuba is to American as a U.S. entity doing business.”

American began flying to Havana from Miami and Charlotte in late November, and from Miami to five other Cuban cities in September. After a mid-February ‘schedule adjustment’ that drops one of two daily flights between Miami and three cities (Holguin, Santa Clara and Varadero), American will be operating 10 daily flights to six Cuban cities.

Other U.S. airlines competed for the go-ahead to offer service to Havana and other Cuban cities. These include Delta (which in November was the first U.S. airline to open a ticket office in Havana), Spirit, United, Alaska, JetBlue and Southwest, all of which are sticking with their original flight schedules.

“Myriad external forces govern the climate in which we operate – prices of energy, labor,” said Brad Hawkins, spokesman for Southwest Airlines, which currently operates a dozen daily roundtrips between Cuba and the U.S.. As of right now, “Our Cuba flights are performing in-line with our expectations.”

JetBlue reported the same.

“Cuba routes are performing as expected,” said JetBlue spokesman Philip Stewart, “As has been the case since we completed all of our route launches last fall, we continue to operate nearly 50 roundtrips between the U.S. and Cuba every week on six unique routes.”

Photo by Harriet Baskas


As one would expect from tourists prohibited from visiting a cultural Mecca for decades, many U.S. visitors who now fly to Havana join walking tours through the city’s old quarters, take rides in restored vintage cars and visit the Presidential Palace (home of the Revolutionary Museum), Hemingway’s House and the studios of local artists.

Members of a 50-person delegation of political, business and cultural leaders who joined Seattle-based Alaska Airlines in January, as part of the first regularly scheduled flight between Los Angeles and Havana, indulged in the same.

At the same time, they engaged with their Cuban counterparts, exchanging ideas and business links.

Stephanie Bowman and other commissioners from the Port of Seattle, which operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and an assortment of cruise and marine terminals, met with the Cuban Minister of Trade and Foreign Investment and the Cuban Port Authority.

“We learned that with the lessening of trade restrictions and the increase in tourism they have huge challenges in infrastructure development, everything from roads and hotels to being able to provide enough food for everyone,” said Bowman. She suggested the Port of Seattle host some Cuban executives in Seattle “so they can observe our cruise and airport business and take some best practices back.”

Photo courtesy Tom Norwalk

Kevin Mather, president & COO of the Seattle Mariners, didn’t meet with Cuban baseball officials or players while in Havana. However, he did bring a suitcase full of t-shirts, whiffle balls and other Mariners promotional items to hand out to baseball fans in a downtown Havana plaza.

Mather recognized that scouting for potential players in Cuba is a touchy subject right now, but he’s confident that eventually Cuban baseball leagues and the American Major League Baseball will have an understanding.

“And when the gate opens and the race starts, I want to have a horse to ride,” said Mather. He instructed his office to retain scouts and people well-versed in the Cuban economy “so that when the day comes we can react.”

That “hurry up and wait” lesson is being learned by members of cultural, business, tourism and trade missions heading to Cuba from a variety of U.S cities, said Janet Moore, president of Distant Horizons, which organizes the on-the-ground details for many delegations.

Once in Cuba, “They quickly realize that it’s not quite so straight-forward and that until the Trade Embargo is lifted, doing business with Cuba comes with an enormous set of regulations,” said Moore.

“So feelers are being put out there and relationships forged, but at this point concrete steps are more difficult,” she added.

Now you can fly to Cuba from the west coast

There have been celebrations galore as U.S. airlines have begun flying to Havana and other Cuban cities from various cities in the east.

But on Thursday, January 5, Alaska Airlines rounded out the renewed schedule of commercial routes from the US-to-Cuba with a flight that starts at Seattle -Tacoma International Airport, stops at Los Angeles International Airport and then continues on to Havana.

I was fortunate to be able to go along for the inaugural ride.


The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the flight took place at LAX and, once on board, passengers found little flags and an inaugural flight certificate at their seats.

Among the passengers onboard the inaugural flight were 50 political, business and cultural leaders from California and Washington state and ‘regular’ customers taking advantage of the new service – and good fares.

While Alaska Airlines’ inaugural flight to Havana was a “first,” it actually wasn’t the first time the airline has flown to Cuba.


According to an airline blog post,  in the early 1970s, Alaska Airlines flew U.S. Military Airlift Command charter flights to the base at Guantanamo Bay.

The the modern route is being served by a Boeing 737-900ER with this daily schedule:

Start date City pair Departs Arrives Frequency
Jan. 5 Seattle-Los Angeles 5 a.m. 7:39 a.m. Daily
Jan. 5 Los Angeles-Havana 8:50 a.m. 4:55 p.m. Daily
Jan. 5 Havana-Los Angeles 5:55 p.m. 8:45 p.m. Daily
Jan. 5/6 Los Angeles-Seattle 11:45 p.m. 2:35 a.m. Daily
Flight times based on local times zones.

Here are some pics of the cool vintage cars you’ve heard that still exist in Cuba. More details about other sights tomorrow.

Now: fly commercial to Havana


The first commercial flights between the United States and Havana started flying on Monday, by coincidence just a few days after the death of longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

A 45-minute American Airlines flight from Miami to Havana was the first flight US – Havana flight of the day, followed by JetBlue’s flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Havana.

I joined the JetBlue flight. Here are some snaps from the send-off festivities, the flight and the Havana airport.






JetBlue crew members had to apply to be part of the team on this inaugural flight, writing letters to try to compete for a spot. This flight attendant was glad to be on the flight so she could bring her doll “Lulu” back to Havana for the first time since 1962.


There are just a few shops in the post-security area of Havana Airport – but several places to buy cigars.


View out the window of Havana Jose Marti International Airport


American and JetBlue were the first airlines to begin flying between the US and Havana, but by January Alaska Airlines, Delta, Frontier, Spirit, Southwest and United should be flying there too from a variety of cities throughout the U.S.

Fresh art from Cuba at MSP Airport

Cuban art MSP 1

Omar Valenti – Photographer

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) and Arts @ MSP are hosting a Cuban art exhibit titled “Buoyancy” on both Concourses E and F in MSP’s Terminal 1 – Lindbergh.

Why ‘Buoyancy’? It’s a nod to to “the spirit of the Cuban people, who have continued to thrive despite more than a half century of trade embargoes and political conflict.”

cuba art msp 2 marilyn Adrian Rumbaut – Visual Artist[/caption

In addition to visual art, the exhibit also includes a visual and sound installation about Cuba by The Touch of Sound, an online library of authentic recordings collected from around the world by Minnesota brothers Jesse and Jonah Marks, who partnered with the US Cuba Artist Exchange in tour of Cuba,