U.S. grants Havana routes to 8 airlines, led by American

(Reuters) - The U.S. government on Wednesday granted eight U.S. airlines permission to begin scheduled commercial flights to Havana starting as early as this fall, with American Airlines Group Inc AAL.O being awarded 35 direct flights a week.

An American Airlines Boeing 757 aircraft takes off at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy, France, August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

JetBlue Airways Corp JBLU.O, Delta Air Lines Inc DAL.N and United Continental Holdings Inc UAL.N were among the winners, with most proposing to begin services later this year or early in 2017.

The U.S. Transportation Department granted 20 daily Havana flights now after previously assigning routes to several Cuban provinces. The announcement was timed to coincide with the first scheduled commercial flight to the provinces, as JetBlue flew from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to the Cuban city of Santa Clara on Wednesday.

Improved air travel resulted from U.S. President Barack Obama’s opening toward Cuba. The Cold War foes restored diplomatic relations a year ago following a 54-year break. However, the Communist-led island is still subject to a U.S. economic embargo that prohibits most other commerce.

Wednesday’s final decision confirmed tentative assignments made on July 7.

American, the biggest U.S. airline in Latin America by flights, was granted four flights a day from Miami and one from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Its rival for Caribbean travel, JetBlue, was granted 27 weekly flights from New York, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.

The department also authorized 21 weekly flights to Havana on Delta, with daily flights from New York, Atlanta and Miami.

United will fly daily from Newark, New Jersey, and weekly from Houston. Southwest Airlines Co LUV.N will fly from Fort Lauderdale and Tampa; Alaska Air Group Inc ALK.N from Los Angeles; Spirit Airlines Inc SAVE.O from Fort Lauderdale; and Frontier Airlines from Miami.

In June, the Transportation Department gave airlines approval to schedule flights to other cities in Cuba for the first time in decades. Until now, private air travel to the island just 90 miles (145 km) from the United States had been limited to charter services.

A U.S. ban on tourism to Cuba is still in effect, but the United States stopped prosecuting individuals for going to Cuba when Obama became president. Americans can legally travel to Cuba if they meet one of 12 criteria, such as for educational, cultural or religious purposes.

Obama has expanded commerce with Cuba using executive authority, but only Congress can lift the embargo. The Republican leadership has blocked any such proposal from coming up for a vote.

Reporting by Christian Plumb and Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Toni Reinhold