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U.S.-Cuba Air Travel Deal Will Help Caribbean Service, JetBlue Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When you're a journalist, your friends often ask you about the news. And the question I get a lot, are Americans really going to be able to vacation freely in Cuba? Well, it may be one step closer. In Havana yesterday, the U.S. and Cuba signed an agreement to allow commercial air travel between the two countries for the first time in decades. Several U.S. carriers have lined up to get permission to fly to Cuba. One is JetBlue, who's senior vice president for airline planning is a man named Scott Laurence. Scott, good morning to you.

SCOTT LAURENCE: Good morning. How are you?

GREENE: I'm well. Thank you. So I want to hear about these flights to Cuba. They could begin as soon as this fall. And I'm wondering why this is a priority for JetBlue.

LAURENCE: We're a big carrier into the region. It's a big part of our network. And, you know, we've got a big hole. If you look at the map, if you look at a grocery store that doesn't sell milk, then that's serving Cuba.

GREENE: (Laughter).

LAURENCE: So it really rounds out our ability to serve the Caribbean.

GREENE: Just so our listeners understand, it's got - I mean, when I did a flight as a journalist to Cuba, I took a charter flight. I mean, I had to go through a charter company. It was actually an American Airlines plane - apologies...

LAURENCE: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...With an American Airlines crew, but it was done through a charter company. Is that essentially what you do at JetBlue? You fly your planes there, you have crews going, but they actually - money is exchanged through a charter company.

LAURENCE: That's correct. We do have a very similar process to which you experienced, obviously, a little bit better.

GREENE: (Laughter) OK.

LAURENCE: But we work with business partners who are permitted to work in Cuba. We contract with them to provide the airplane and the crew, and they are responsible for sales and I think, like, document checking, things like that.

GREENE: But this will be more than a cosmetic change. I mean, if you actually have scheduled flights that you're able to run, you'll be - it'll be more profitable for the airline. You'll be flying more flights there, so forth.

LAURENCE: Yes, now there are some restrictions on the categories of Americans that can visit Cuba. They have to be (unintelligible) in one of 12 categories. But we're going to be responsible for things like the pricing and looking to compete on service, and it's something we're really excited about.

GREENE: You mention those travel restrictions that will still be in place. Does that make things a little scary and unpredictable, like the demand that you might have in a different, new destination, you know, might not be there?

LAURENCE: Absolutely. Data is the biggest issue, and you don't have data for Cuba, and data is our safety blanket. We don't make a lot of decisions about analyzing them to that. With Cuba, with the exception of going back to 1959 where the data is a little swirly...

GREENE: (Laughter) Little aged.

LAURENCE: Yes, it is. We just don't have a good angle on what customers are going to do in terms of these 12 restrictions. We think there's a lot of excitement for Cuba. We think we're going to see a lot of people wanting to go. And obviously, we know that there's a market there for people visiting their friends and relatives. But it is a bit of an unknown, and we're going to have to go forward without that safety blanket.

GREENE: As I gather, there's, like, a bidding war going on among airlines to try and grab these roots. Are you there in some room at the Department of Transportation with senior vice presidents from other airlines, or does this take place all, like, over email?

LAURENCE: It'd be like a cage match if that happened. I...

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: (Laughter).

LAURENCE: (Laughter) It's definitely a competitive process. We go to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Each of us submits a data or business case as to how we'll better serve the traveling public. The department will take each of these competitive bids, and we will all get on our hind legs and punch holes in each other's logic.

GREENE: (Laughter).

LAURENCE: The department then takes a period of time, usually between about 90 and 180 days, (unintelligible) obliged to begin operating.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking with Scott Laurence. He is the senior vice president for airline planning at JetBlue, one of the airlines that is trying to get flights approved to fly from the United States to Cuba. Scott, thanks a lot.

LAURENCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.