Half empty…not half full. American Airlines currently operates 56 weekly flights from the US to Cuba, but according to the Miami Herald, the majority of them are leaving with more empty seats than passengers. They surveyed the flights during weekdays, and found that 83% of the flights had a load factor of less than half. Cuban Customs records even showed that a handful of flights arrived with only 12 – 13 passengers onboard.
American Flights are Empty
American operates a mix of Airbus A319 and Boeing 737-800 on their routes to Cuba, offering between 128 and 160 seats per flight. These are the flights American currently offer between the US and Cuba:
- 2x Daily: Miami to Holguin (HOG), Santa Clara (SNU), and Varadero (VRA)
- 1x Daily: Miami to Camaguey (CMW) and Cienfuegos (CFG)
I surveyed the flights for next week, and the load factors don’t look good. On a Monday flight from Miami to Varadero, only 10 out of 118 available seats are taken in Economy.
The flight to Santa Clara isn’t doing that much better. One of the flights on Monday has just 16 out of 144 Economy seats taken.
The load factor is much higher on a JetBlue flight on the same day, which flies from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara. There are still a good chunk of empty seats, but more than 60% of the cabin is filled:
Are These Routes Under-Achieving?
I can think of a few reasons why the routes may not be performing so well. First of all, US citizens still cannot legally travel to Cuba for tourism reasons—they must fit one of twelve criteria in order to visit the country. As a result, while a number of Americans may be eager to visit Cuba, they are holding off until tourism becomes legal, or until they can get on a “people-to-people” trip.
One may argue that those visiting family members may be flying on charter flights, making the demand for commercial flights lower than otherwise expected. However, with the launch of commercial flights, both American Airlines and JetBlue are no longer leasing aircrafts to charter companies. “As we begin service (to Cuban cities), we don’t keep on doing charters,” American spokeswoman Martha Pantin said. Customers also seem to overwhelmingly favor commercial flights over charter flights, due to drastically lower prices.
But it does seem that low load factor isn’t a systemic issue. American Airlines’ flights are having lower load factors than competitors, and I can’t exactly put my finger on why that is.
Still to Come: Service to Havana
An additional consideration to keep in mind, is that airlines have not launched services to Havana, the Cuban capital yet. With the relaxed restrictions in place, US airlines were at a frenzy in petitioning for rights to fly to Havana. In July, the DOT granted 8 US airlines the right to fly between the US and Havana. American is set to be the first US carrier to launch commercial flights to Havana, on November 28. United will launch their flights one day later.
Havana is going to be the most popular city for Cuban Americans and “tourists” alike, and should be the route that will perform the best for American. As such, perhaps customers are still holding out for the launch of Havana services, leading to a low demand for flights to provincial cities.
I expect American to maintain their frequency for a while, even if they aren’t achieving high load factors or even profitable. After all, there’s been a 50 years of restrained demand to visit Cuba, which will take some time to build up. Still, I would be interested if American makes any comments about their Cuban service in their upcoming earnings call on October 20.