Sudden Cuba Restrictions Leaving Operators in a Bind

 - June 10, 2019, 12:04 PM

The U.S.’s decision to immediately ban Part 91 flights to Cuba has left “scores and scores of people in a bind,” according to Eric Norber, founder of Cuba Handling, which specializes in facilitating private aircraft travel to and itineraries in Cuba.

New regulations were released last week and took effect on June 5 that effectively banned both privately operated N-numbered aircraft and U.S. cruise ships from traveling to Cuba. The regulatory changes essentially reinstated a requirement for licensing for private aircraft travel to Cuba but at the same time said a license would not be granted except under rare cases. There was no grandfathering provision for pre-arranged private or cruise ship travel.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration also eliminated the people-to-people category for travel to Cuba. This was one of a dozen categories under which people were permitted to travel to Cuba, and arguably the most commonly used reason for such travel. However, the U.S. government did grandfather pre-arranged travel for people-to-people purposes.

“The way the changes were drafted and worded, it seemed to be poorly coordinated across the different types of travel to Cuba, including the different categories and the different means of travel,” said Norber. This has created a quandary, he said, because many people who booked cruises under people-to-people are grandfathered under their reason for the travel but are not able to get there because the cruises were specifically and immediately prohibited.

“It’s paradoxical,” Norber said. “Unfortunately it’s not the first time we’ve seen confusing or conflicting wording or regulations.” Even when the Obama Administration relaxed the regulations by executive order, those orders were in conflict with existing regulations and it took some time to sort out.

As for the effective ban on private aircraft, he said his own company had numerous clients who have had trips planned to Cuba. “They’ve been planning well ahead. In some cases, they have paid ahead for the permits, the handling, and the facilitation of the flight. In the course of 24 hours, their trip was no longer permitted,” said Norber. This has left those operators in the lurch, he added.

While private aircraft are essentially banned (there will be exceptions when used for the security of the U.S. or safety of the air transportation system), charter and scheduled airlines continue to be permitted, as do air ambulance operations. Norber advised that those traveling must ensure that they fall under the 11 permitted categories of travel to Cuba. “The changes simply alter how people get to Cuba. It restricts their options,” he said, but people can still get there.

Regulations banning private aircraft will affect hundreds of operations every year, Norber said. When the rules were first relaxed, Norber’s company, alone, had handled well over 1,000 requests a year for private non-charter flights to Cuba. That initial bubble has deflated a bit over the past 12 to 18 months, but flights were still well into the hundreds, he said. He believes that the threats of the changes may have served as a deterrent in recent months.

As for those who had paid in advance to for what is now impermissible travel, Norber was confident that the Cuban government and businesses would work with operators on refunds. He added that in his experience, Cuba has worked to accommodate such changes and added they have viewed the travel from the U.S. generally favorably. The restrictions are U.S.-driven rather than spurred from Cuba, he stressed.