US-Cuba relations
Tourists look on from the balcony of a hotel in Havana, Cuba in November 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The US and Cuba have reached an understanding on restoring commercial flights, officials from Washington and Havana announced on 16 December. The diplomatic announcement could allow US airliners to begin flying to Cuba within months, as relations between the Cold War foes continues to thaw.

According to The Associated Press, officials said they had reached an understanding but had not made a formal agreement, which they hoped they could reach within hours or days. American and Cuban travelers can travel between the two countries, but they must do it on charter flights that are difficult to book and have strict baggage limits and security issues.

The first direct flight between Baltimore and Havana landed on 30 September, just a day after the two countries held two days of talks on the restoration of scheduled airline service. The two sides planned at that time to meet again before the end of the year, most likely in Washington, a US official said.

The AP reported that US officials and aviation executives speculate Cuba could permit over a dozen flights from the US a day. However, it is unclear if commercial flights would replace the charter flights used currently. A boost in air travel would add to the already heavy strain on Cuba's tourist infrastructure, the AP noted.

US officials have said that travel between the US and Cuba has increased 50% since the two nations began working towards normalising relations in December 2014. Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the head of the US embassy in Havana, said on 15 December that the travel boost was a target of President Barack Obama. Travel to Cuba continues to be illegal, but Obama has loosened restrictions through executive actions aimed to ease trade and travel embargoes, The Wall Street Journal reported. However, only Congress can fully lift those restrictions.

In an interview with Yahoo News, the president said he hopes to travel to Cuba before leaving office. "I am very much interested in going to Cuba, but I think the conditions have to be right," he said. "My hope is that sometime next year we look at the conditions there and we say, 'You know what? Now would be a good time to shine a light on progress that's been made, but also maybe to nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.'"