Washington: American Airlines said Tuesday that it would begin weekly charter flights between Los Angeles and Havana in December, as the US and Cuba edge closer to full bilateral aviation relations.
American would become the second major US airline to take advantage of loosened restrictions on travel between the two countries, after JetBlue launched direct charter flights between New York and Havana last month.
American has operated charters from Florida to Cuba since 1991 principally serving the large expatriate Cuban community, but the new Los Angeles route recognizes the rapidly expanding market of non-Cuban travelers.
"American is the premier carrier in Los Angeles and throughout the Caribbean, and this new charter flight shows how we continue to expand our reach by offering new routes and services our customers want," said senior vice president Art Torno in a statement.
As with JetBlue, restrictions will apply to American Airlines`s Cuba service: Tickets have to be sold through a separate, specially authorized travel company rather than directly by the carrier; and regularly scheduled service is still prohibited.
American`s tickets will be sold through Cuba Travel Services, which has long handled tickets for the carrier`s charter flights from Florida.
A five-decade Cold War freeze of relations between the two countries, separated by a bare 90 miles (150 kilometers) of Caribbean waters, began thawing after US President Barack Obama`s agreement with Cuban President Raul Castro to restore diplomatic relations last year.
Cuba reopened its embassy in Washington on July 20, and the US embassy reopened in Havana last week.
While travel by Americans to Cuba is still restricted, airlines and cruise ship operators are jockeying for position in what could become a lucrative tourism trade as Cuba opens its economy.
On Tuesday The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House is pushing for an agreement with Havana by the end of the year on establishing regularly scheduled commercial flight services.
The State Department however cautioned Tuesday that fully normalizing relations will be "a long, complex process."
"We remain in contact with the Cuban government regarding the establishment of scheduled air service," spokesman John Kirby said, adding that "no decisions have yet been made."
American Airlines`s Torno said it was looking forward to that possibility.
"We stand ready to offer scheduled service as soon as the United States and Cuba allow commercial flights," he said.
United Airlines also said earlier this year it wants to begin Houston-Havana and Newark-Havana flights.