The United States and Cuba signed an agreement Tuesday authorizing daily US commercial flights to the communist-ruled island for the first time in more than 50 years.
The deal allows up to 110 daily flights to 10 destinations in Cuba, with about 20 of them to the capital Havana, where authorities have ordered renovations to double the capacity of Jose Marti airport.
"Today is a historic day in the relationship between Cuba and the United States," said US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in Havana, where he signed the accord with his Cuban counterpart Adel Rodriguez.
"For the first time in more than five decades, the United States and Cuba will allow (airlines) to establish a service between our two nations."
Rodriguez said the accord marked "the start of a new era in air transport links between Cuba and the United States, which will contribute to the deepening of ties between our two countries."
Currently, all flights between the two countries are charter flights.
US authorities said they would immediately invite American airlines to submit applications to operate the flights, with routes to be set up within months.
The Cuban government will also give "thorough consideration to future requests from the US government to increase this level of service," said US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Transportation Affairs Thomas Engle.
The agreement allows for regular flights "between any city in the US and any city in Cuba," provided it is equipped with infrastructure for international air travel, he added.
Airlines in the two countries can now strike deals on code-sharing and aircraft leasing, the Cuban embassy said in December when the plan was announced.
However, travel by US tourists is still barred under the trade embargo that the United States slapped on Cuba in the 1960s after Fidel Castro came to power in a revolution.
The US Treasury Department has set 12 categories of authorized travel including for artists and journalists.
- Multiple destinations -
"Initially, the US carriers will be allowed to fly 20 scheduled frequencies per day to Havana, the largest market, and remember that the current level is zero," Engle said.
They may also "fly 10 scheduled frequencies per day to any other city in Cuba that has an airport open to international service."
Besides Havana, flights will be allowed to Camaguey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguin, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.
The agreement formally opens the door for Cuban airlines to start operating future flights into the United States.
But Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs Brandon Belford said Cuban airlines will still have to obtain their own licenses from US authorities.
"So we do not anticipate Cuban-owned aircraft serving the US in the near future," he said.
- Call for applications -
On Tuesday, the Treasury Department was to invite US airlines to submit applications to be allocated the new flights.
American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines have previously expressed an interest in running regular flights to Cuba as has JetBlue, which already operates charter flights.
Belford said "carriers will have 15 days to submit their applications if they want to serve Havana and the other nine airports."
All final decisions will be made in within about six months.
"Our expectation is that we will be in position to make a decision and make it final sometime in the summer, in terms of which carriers and which US cities will have service into Cuba," Belford said.
Commercial flights between Cuba and the United States were cancelled 53 years ago but since the mid-1970s, authorized charter flights have been allowed under certain conditions.
Cuba is strengthening its foreign commercial ties after formally restoring diplomatic relations with the United States in July.