Alaska Airlines announces it's ending service to Cuba

KOMO News visited Cuba in January (KOMO Photo)

SEATTLE (KOMO)-- Nearly a year to the day it began, Alaska Airlines will be ending its service to Havana, Cuba in January.

The Seattle based carrier tells KOMO News their last flight is planned for January 22, 2018. The Alaska aircraft used since the Havana route on January 5th, 2017 will soon be redeployed to serve destinations with higher demand.

"It's unfortunate," says John Kirby, Vice President of Capacity Planning and Alliances. "You never want to exit a route, but we are exiting the L.A.-to-Havana route and the last flight will be on January 22."

Kirby said they thought there would be a lot of pent up demand after a more than 50-year embargo on travel to Cuba. But it just didn't last.

RELATED | KOMO en Cuba: A glimpse of life inside Havana

"It really took off in March and sustained itself through July and the load factors got into the mid and high 80 percent, so we did a good job," he said. "But then we saw a precipitous drop off in traffic starting into the fall season. I'm sure that hurricane season didn't help as well but we really saw that the loads and the pent-up demand had exhausted itself, and we aren’t seeing any gains."

Kirby also cited the change in regulation last week that "people-to-people" travel for education is now no longer available. About 80 percent of Alaska’s flyers to Havana visited under that allowance. In June, The Trump administration announced a policy reversal would be coming to Cuba, stating changes made under President Obama would no longer apply.

"We really don't blame the administration," Kirby said. "We knew going in there was a very fluid environment, there is a risk."

When the airline launched its service to Cuba in January, it did so with limited data. Normally he explained that before launching any service they gather and analyze data, but there wasn't any data available for this market, since it didn't previously exist.

So what is the response now, from Cuba?

"We have people actually, literally on the ground today informing the Cuban officials," Kirby said. "We haven't gotten any feedback yet."

Last week, the White House announced a "blacklist" making dozens of Cuban hotels, shops, tour companies and other businesses off-limits to U.S. citizens due to links to Cuba's military, intelligence or security services. Still, the policy is only a partial rollback of Obama's changes. Cruise ship visits and direct commercial flights between the countries will still be permitted. Embassies in Washington and Havana stay open. Bringing home limited quantities of rum and Cuban cigars is still allowed, officials said.

"Cuba is still open for business," said Charel van Dam of the Cuba Travel Network. "It is still possible for people to travel, but I think these announcements will serve mainly as something to scare off people who want to visit."

But Kirby said this is the right decision for the company.

"This is like nothing else we’ve ever done before. I would characterize it as a success that we were able to start up in a place like Havana, successfully," he said.

Passengers who had booked a flight after Jan. 22 will either be offered a flight on another airline at no additional cost or be offered a full refund.

Amazon's 2nd Headquarters could spur additional airline service

Alaska Airlines is now closing its acquisition of Virgin America, so is what markets will the airline be looking to expand to?

"I can't speak of any new routes," Kirby said. But he did say there's a lot of interest in Seattle and where Amazon will anchor its second headquarters.

"I attended a conference in Barcelona last month and everybody was asking me where is Amazon going to put their next headquarters and I said I have no idea," said Kirby.

He did say that we will see a lot more growth in Seattle with cities interested in Amazon's HQ2, looking for service to Seattle.

Alaska has launched 44 routes this year and the majority are meeting or exceeding the airline’s load factor forecasts, the airline said. The company anticipates it will grow about 7.2 percent this year. As the airline looks ahead to 2018, its planning for nearly 8 percent network growth by adding capacity in primarily existing markets.

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