The United States and Cuba signed a deal Tuesday restoring commercial air traffic for the first time in five decades, allowing dozens of new daily flights to bring hundreds of thousands more American travelers a year to the island as early as this fall, the AP reports. Immediately after the signing, the US Department of Transportation opened bidding by American air carriers on as many as 110 US-Cuba flights a day—more than five times the current number. All flights operating between the two countries today are charters. Barring other major announcements, the restart of commercial flights will be the most significant development in US-Cuba trade since President Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced in late 2014 that they would begin normalizing ties after a half-century of Cold War opposition.
"Today is a historic day in the relationship between Cuba and the US," US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said after he and Cuban Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez signed the deal in a ceremony at Havana's Hotel Nacional. "It represents a critically important milestone in the US effort to engage with Cuba." The US Department of Transportation expects to award the new routes by the summer. The winning airlines then must negotiate their own deals with Cuba. Foxx said he believes Cuba is eager to restore commercial air service as quickly as possible. US visitors to Cuba will still have to qualify under one of the travel categories legally authorized by the US government. Tourism is still barred by law, but the number of legal reasons to go to Cuba has grown so large and is so loosely enforced that the distinction from tourism has blurred significantly. (Read more Cuba stories.)