American Airlines applies to start nonstop Charlotte-Cuba flights

American Airlines applied Wednesday for permission to fly nonstop from Charlotte to Havana, in a landmark move as air carriers and the U.S. government look to reestablish ties with Cuba.

American wants to fly once a day year-round from Charlotte, its second-busiest hub, where American operates about 90 percent of daily flights. The carrier also applied for 10 daily flights to Havana from Miami, its primary gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as once daily from Dallas/Fort Worth and weekly from Los Angeles and Chicago.

Charlotte’s flight is ranked eighth on the priority list of routes that American wants to fly to Cuba, behind seven of the Miami flights.

“American’s proposed service – from Miami and four other hubs – will provide a strong foundation for the sustained future growth of commercial and cultural ties between the U.S. and Cuba,” American chief executive Doug Parker said in a statement.

All flights now operating between the U.S. and Cuba are charters. The Department of Transportation – headed by former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx – will review the applications from American and other carriers and decide which to grant.

The other airlines applying for Cuba flights, originating from various U.S. cities, include Delta, United, JetBlue and Southwest. Scheduled flights could begin in the fall.

In its application, American said its Charlotte service would complement its Miami routes, offering 34 destinations for connecting passengers in Charlotte not offered through the Miami hub. A flight from Charlotte to Havana would also give connecting passengers from other cities another option, since many of the flights from Miami are expected to be filled by local demand.

The proposed Charlotte-Havana flight would take about 2  1/2 hours and cover 847 miles, according to American’s application. It would be on an Airbus A319, a jet that seats 144 passengers total, with eight in business class.

President Barack Obama has led an effort to normalize relations, commerce and travel between the U.S. and Cuba. The U.S. has blacklisted Cuba with a commercial embargo and travel restrictions for more than five decades, since the communist regime came to power under Fidel Castro.

The Castro regime remains in place, under President Raul Castro, but relations have warmed up sharply in the past year, despite continuing opposition in the U.S. led by congressional Republicans. Obama plans to visit Cuba this month, the first such trip by a sitting U.S. president in more than 80 years.

Foxx, the transportation secretary, signed an agreement with Cuba last month that will allow regular, scheduled air service between the two countries to formally resume. The airlines’ proposed routes must also be approved by Cuban authorities.

Even if the Charlotte flight is approved, however, it won’t immediately be possible for Charlotteans to hop on a plane and head to Havana. Travel restrictions still in place require that U.S. citizens can only go to Cuba for certain types of trips, such as educational tours organized by approved companies, family visits, religious or charitable activities or journalistic activity.

An estimated 160,000 American leisure travelers visited Cuba last year, as well as hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans visiting family. Regular commercial air travel could add hundreds of thousands of leisure travelers.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo