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Saturday, December 16, 2017

By Arshad Mohammed and Jeffrey Dastin

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) — The United States and Cuba have agreed to restore scheduled commercial airline service between the two countries for the first time in more than five decades, exactly a year after they started the process of normalizing relations.

The latest step to restore U.S.-Cuba ties after 54 years of hostility will not go into effect immediately but should eventually increase tourism and business on the communist-ruled island.

Once implemented, the agreement will allow U.S. airlines to sell tickets on their websites for flights to Cuba, but they must first apply for permission from U.S. regulators to fly specific routes. Charter flights operated by U.S. carriers already connect the countries.

The United States and Cuba have agreed to allow 110 round-trip flights on U.S. airlines to Cuba per day, according to Thomas Engle, deputy assistant secretary for transportation affairs at the U.S. State Department. That includes 20 flights to Havana and 10 to each of the other nine international airports in Cuba.

He said no date has been set for final signing of the aviation agreement, but no issues were expected to stop it.

A group that promotes U.S.-Cuba trade said there was a 60-to-90 day process during which U.S.-based air carriers will submit proposed routes, suggesting scheduled flights would not begin until the first few months of 2016 at the earliest.

The decision to restore ties, made by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro a year ago, in part reflected Washington’s judgment that its policy of isolating Havana politically, economically and diplomatically had failed.

While U.S. officials still oppose Cuba’s lack of political rights, Obama concluded these goals could be better served through engagement.

Although the agreement will eventually make it easier to travel back and forth between the countries, the U.S. ban on general tourism to the Caribbean island remains in force.

U.S. travelers still must meet at least one of 12 criteria to visit, such as being Cuban-American or taking part in educational tours or journalistic activity.

STILL MANY U.S.-CUBAN DIFFERENCES

“We continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but we raise those issues directly, and we will always stand for human rights and the universal values that we support around the globe,” Obama said in a written statement.

“Change does not happen overnight, and normalization will be a long journey,” he added.

The United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a revolution that steered the island on a leftist course and made it a close ally of the Soviet Union. For decades, Washington’s policy was to isolate the island.

Since last year’s detente, the countries have restored diplomatic ties and reopened their embassies. Obama has also taken steps to encourage closer business ties with the island.

However, the longstanding U.S. trade embargo on the island remains in place and the Republican-controlled Congress has resisted Obama’s calls to lift it. Cuba’s human rights record still draws criticism from Washington, and Castro’s government has made clear the diplomatic opening does not mean Havana plans to change its one-party political system.

SURGE IN TOURISM

Cuba’s embassy in Washington said in a statement on the airline deal that the countries reiterated their commitment to flight security and to protecting civil aviation “from acts of unlawful interference.”

Any planes landing in the United States will have to meet U.S. safety standards, so any old Russian planes in the Cuban fleet will likely only fly domestically within Cuba.

Under the deal, airlines from both countries will be able to make commercial agreements such as sharing flight codes and leasing planes to each other, it said.

New York-based JetBlue Airways Corp, which already operates charter flights to the island, said in a statement it plans to apply to schedule service once it has fully reviewed the terms of the aviation deal.

“Interest in Cuba has reached levels not seen for a generation,” its senior vice president for airline planning, Scott Laurence, said in the statement.

Other U.S. airlines – American Airlines Group Inc, Delta Air Lines Inc and United Continental Holdings Inc – have all expressed interest in scheduling flights to Cuba.

Obama relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba earlier this year. That has led to a boom in U.S. citizens’ visits to Cuba, which are up 71 percent this year, with 138,120 Americans arriving over the first 11 months.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Havana; Editing by Will Dunham, Frances Kerry and Bill Rigby)

Photo: An American Airlines airplane prepares to land at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins