WASHINGTON – U.S. airlines could begin more than 100 daily flights to Cuba by fall under an agreement to be signed Tuesday in Havana, officials announced Friday.
Airlines could fly up to 20 flights to Havana, and up to 10 flights at each of nine other Cuban cities prepared to receive international flights, under the agreement negotiated last year.
If airlines reach those numbers, it would mark a dramatic increase in travel between the countries. Cuba now receives 10 to 15 daily charter flights from the U.S.
“This provides for a very important sizable increase in travel between the two countries,”  said Thomas Engle, deputy assistant secretary for transportation at the State Department.
Engle called the move to expand travel "a key element of the president’s broader policy of normalizing relations."
"This is more people to people contacts," he said. "That’s just all to the good of mutual understanding between two countries that have had strained relations for decades."
Travelers must still certify their trip is for one of 12 purposes other than tourism. But scheduled flights are expected to make trip planning easier.
The demand for flights to Havana, at least, is expected to creation a competition among airlines seeking to provide the service.
The travel agreement is part of the resumption of diplomatic ties that began 14 months ago, shepherded by President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, after 53 years of estrangement following the Communist takeover of the island. During the last year, the countries have reopened embassies in one another's capitals and struck new business deals in medicine, tourism and communications.
“Unleashing the power of American travelers and their frequent flier miles gets us one step closer to eliminating the archaic restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has urged easier travel and trade between the countries.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Charles Rivkin, assistant secretary for economic and business affairs at the State Department, will sign the travel agreement with Cuban counterparts.
Under the deal, the Transportation Department will review proposals with an eye toward maximizing the benefit for the most travelers, according to Brandon Belford, the department’s deputy assistant for aviation.
“Our expectation is to make a decision and make it final sometime this summer about which carriers will have service into Cuba,” Belford said. “Flights will begin later this calendar year in the fall.
Negotiations between U.S. airlines and the Cuban government have already begun in anticipation of the opening.
Cuban airlines aren't expected to begin flying immediately to the U.S. because of lingering legal disputes. But U.S. airlines will be able to sell code-share tickets with their Cuban counterparts, Belford said.
“U.S. carriers have been very intrigued and interested in this potential opportunity since the president’s announcement in December 2014," Belford said. "We are aware that they have already had numerous trips and conversations all with the relevant authorities to grease the skids when this becomes an opportunity."