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United Airlines to start non-stop flights from Houston to Cuba

UAL-US Airways, 2000-01, 2008: United Airlines parent company UAL has courted US Airways twice in the last 15 years, first in May 2000, and again in April 2008. Issues with labor contracts spoiled the latest bid, according to Bloomberg Business (Aaron Cooper/CNN)

HOUSTON – United Airlines has been approved to schedule commercial airline service from Houston and nine other cities to Havana, the company announced Thursday in a press release.

Bush Intercontinental Airport will be an important gateway for service to Havana and will directly connect 20 markets across the central and western United States to Cuba with just one stop, officials said. The Cuban-American population in the Houston metropolitan area ranks among the top ten cities in the country.

"Secretary Anthony Foxx and the U.S. Department of Transportation made an outstanding decision by approving United Airline’s application for Saturday service between Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport and Havana’s Jose Marti international Airport,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Secretary Foxx and United both recognized the very signi?cant economic and consumer benefits these flights to Cuba will bring to Houston-area residents, travelers, businesses and entrepreneurs. While there are nearly 20,000 Cuban Americans in Houston alone, United's service will also connect communities across the central and western U.S. Again, I would like to thank Secretary Foxx and United Airlines for making our great city one of the first new gateways to Cuba.”

Scheduled commercial airline service to Havana from 10 American cities won tentative government approval Thursday, advancing President Barack Obama's effort to normalize relations with Cuba.

Eight U.S. airlines will begin a total of 20 round-trip daily flights as early as this fall between the U.S. and the Cuban capital, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. It has been more than 50 years since the last scheduled air service from the U.S. to the communist island nation.

The U.S. cities are: Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Houston; Los Angeles; Newark, New Jersey; New York; and four in Florida -- Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa.

The airlines are Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United.

Foxx said the decision won't be final until later this summer in order to provide a 30-day public comment period. Last month, the Transportation Department announced the approval of six U.S. airlines to begin service as early as this fall to other Cuban cities.

Most Americans still cannot legally visit Cuba. But the Obama administration has eased rules to the point where travelers are now free to design their own "people-to-people" cultural exchange tours with little oversight. Airlines still need to record  and keep for five years -- the official reason why someone travels to Cuba, so reservation systems have been revamped to allow passengers to select one of the 12 permitted categories. They include family visits, official business, educational or religious activities.
U.S. citizens' interest in visiting Cuba has swelled since relations between the two nations started to thaw in December 2014. Nearly 160,000 U.S. leisure travelers flew to Cuba last year, along with hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans visiting family.