Marking the one-year anniversary of the historic thaw in U.S. - Cuba relations, the U.S. State Department announced an agreement between the United States and Cuba to restore scheduled commercial air travel between the two countries for the first time in over 50 years. The civil aviation agreement has been one of the highest priorities in the on-going bilateral talks between the two governments and represents the latest in a series of significant steps taken by the Obama Administration to normalize diplomatic relations and ease the U.S. trade embargo. See our prior client alerts from January 16, 2015September 23, 2015, andDecember 8, 2015 

"This arrangement will continue to allow charter operations and establish scheduled air service, which will facilitate an increase in authorized travel, enhance traveler choices and promote people-to-people links between the two countries. While U.S. law continues to prohibit travel to Cuba for tourist activities, a stronger civil aviation relationship will facilitate growth in authorized travel between our two countries — a critical component of the President’s policy toward Cuba,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement announcing the deal.

Before the civil aviation agreement can be implemented, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will need to evaluate and sign-off on a number aviation safety and security issues. In addition, once the agreement has been signed, the Department of Transportation (DOT) will “invite applications from U.S. carriers interested in launching new scheduled service to Cuba and conduct a selection proceeding to evaluate the proposals that will offer and maintain the best service.” In light of these remaining steps, it is likely be mid-2016 before regularly scheduled airline services between the United States and Cuba become a reality. 

With respect to the U.S. travel and trade embargo against Cuba, the Departments of Treasury and Commerce amended their economic sanctions and export control regulations earlier this year to allow for scheduled commercial flights.   

Special thanks to Matthew Clark for his contribution to this update.