CubaNews / October 2003
By Larry Luxner
Financially troubled Air Canada has an-nounced “significant improvements” in its air services to Cuba, including more flights and the introduction of scheduled air services on most of the 15 routes the carrier operates to Cuba from cities across Canada.
The airline said Sept. 3 that its customers “will now have the choice of purchasing air travel only or the convenience of inclusive holiday packages available in Canada through Air Canada Vacations.”
For starters, the Montreal-based airline is boosting its overall service to Cuba this winter, offering up to 25 scheduled flights and two charter-only flights from seven Canadian cities to five Cuban destinations — a jump of 13 flights per week, or 90% more seats, from last year’s charter offerings.
Air Canada’s seven gateway cities are Cal-gary, Toronto, London (Ont.), Ottawa, Mon-treal, Moncton (New Brunswick) and Halifax (Nova Scotia). New nonstop routes include Montreal-Cayo Largo, Moncton-Holguín and Halifax-Varadero.
On Dec. 2, Air Canada plans to launch year-round, nonstop service between Toronto and Havana. The new Toronto-Havana flights will be offered on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, using 120-seat Airbus A319 aircraft in a two-cabin configuration. Round-trip fares from either Montreal or Toronto to Havana are now being offered starting at C$398 (US$292) for travel from Dec. 2 to Feb. 15.
“This is a major expansion of services to Cuba that positions Air Canada as the international airline of choice serving the Carib-bean’s largest island nation,” said Bill Bredt, vice-president of Air Canada’s network and revenue management division.
Air Canada, the 11th-largest commercial airline in the world, flies to more than 150 destinations on five continents, and serves over 30 million passengers a year with a fleet consisting of more than 300 aircraft. It has been ranked as the world’s safest airline, and in a 2002 survey by travel information publisher OAG, was voted best airline in North America for the second time in three years.
Yet the airline was recently forced to apply for protection from creditors, and the combination of Toronto’s recent SARS outbreak and war in Iraq will cost Air Canada a projected C$1 billion in 2003 losses.
Airline spokesman John Reber declined to say how much revenue Cuba represents to Air Canada, though he did say the airline flew over 50,000 passengers to Cuba last year.
“We determined that there are significant growth opportunities among our warm-winter destinations,” he said. “Cuba has traditionally been a very popular destination for Canadi-ans, and because we’re seeing a continued increase in demand, that has led us to significantly increase our service year by year.”
“What’s also interesting,” he told CubaNews, “is that in addition to holiday packages, for the first time we’re now offering scheduled services through our computer reservations systems and online.”
J.J. Jennex, investor relations director at Leisure Canada Inc. in Vancouver, says Air Canada’s expansion is “obviously a positive one” considering that 350,000 Canadians visit Cuba annually.
“Canada is the No. 1 provider of tourists to Cuba, and we represent about 20% of total tourism there,” said Jennex, whose company is building three upscale hotel resorts in Havana, Varadero and Cayo Largo. “Cuban tourism makes sense as an investment today, and all the projections we have are based on the U.S embargo staying intact.”
Yet Americans hoping to use Air Canada’s website to book trips to Cuba will find themselves out of luck. Reber declined to comment on how many Americans might use Air Canada to circumvent the Cuba travel ban, only to say that “all our U.S. offices continue to comply with the U.S. embargo.”