During Tough Time for Cuba, American Airlines Adds Service to Havana
Havana scene

Commercial air service between the U.S. and Havana is gearing up this week despite a series of unexpected events and potential obstacles.

Nine days of mourning in Cuba, following Fidel Castro's death on Friday, has largely shut down commerce in Cuba. Donald Trump's election as president has raised questions about whether rapprochement will continue.

Additionally, the eagerness of U.S. carriers to begin Cuba service -- plans by eight airlines to begin flights from 10 U.S. cities to a half dozen Cuban cities have been a case of too much, too soon -- has come face to face with limited demand: American Airlines (AAL) said Wednesday that in February it will cut back to 10 daily Cuba flights from 13, with the reductions coming in service between Miami and Holguin, Santa Clara and Varadero, which will all go to one daily flight from two.

Terri Pope, American's vice president for airport customer service and the Charlotte hub, said such changes are common. "We look at our network every day," Pope said. "We look from a metrics standpoint."

Nevertheless, Wednesday's startup of Charlotte-Havana service was a festive affair -- with Cuban hats, Cuban coffee and Cuban pastries handed out in the airport -- as well as a deeply emotional event for at least two Cuban-American employees of American airlines, who took advantage of the opportunity to visit the island that many people fled after Castro came to power.

Domingo Alfaro, a Charlotte-based management pilot who flew as first officer, said he left Cuba as a small child. He said he sought the trip because Cuba "is like an old love that got away, and now you're able to go back and see [her}."

Alfaro, along with captain Craig Jones, also a management pilot, were scheduled to fly to Havana and then fly the return trip to Charlotte. They will be on the ground in Havana for about 90 minutes. "We'll be able to walk around and step on the ground and see it and feel it," Alfaro said.

Miami-based employee Alexis Coello also made the round-trip on Wednesday. Her grandparents and parents had left Cuba. "It's very emotional for my family," she said. "I'm American but I'm also Cuban {and} I want my feet to touch Cuban soil."

At the airport ceremony, Brent Cagle, Charlotte's aviation director, said, "In the airport world, it's always a good day when we are celebrating a new international destination."

While Miami is American's primary hub for service to Cuba, the Caribbean and Latin America, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts noted that Charlotte serves about three dozen markets where it could provide Havana connections that Miami lacks.

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