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Editorial: Chicago gets dissed on direct flights to Cuba

FILE - In this March 14, 2016 file photo, a "quinceanera" poses during her photo session in front of the cathedral as tourists line up to enter the building, in Havana, Cuba. Scheduled commercial airline service to Havana from 10 American cities won tentative government approval Thursday, July 7, 2016, advancing President Barack Obama's effort to normalize relations with Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

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So OK, it makes sense that four Florida cities were big winners when the federal government Thursday awarded eight airlines direct flights to Havana, part of an effort by the United States and Cuba to normalize relations.

Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa have large Cuban and Cuban-American populations. Airports in those cities will be allowed at least one daily round-trip flight to the Cuban capital.

But we’re still trying to understand what happened to Chicago.


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That’s right. O’Hare International Airport, the nation’s second busiest airport, will have no direct flights to Havana, the capital city of Cuba. This is a knock on Chicago, which we were under the impression is still a major player in international air transportation.

Best we can tell, nobody in City Hall or our local congressional delegation necessarily dropped the ball; the record shows they lobbied for the direct O’Hare service to Havana. But how does the third largest city in the country, one that is the capital of the Midwest, get iced out?

There’s a feeling here of having been dissed.

Here’s how it played out: When the major airlines earlier this year submitted applications to the federal Department of Transportation to fly to Havana, they requested flights from multiple cities, to which they assigned rankings. Chicago fell near the bottom of the list for American Airlines and was last for United Airlines.

We are frankly stunned that American ranked Charlotte Douglas International in North Carolina ahead of O’Hare. The Chicago area has the nation’s sixth-highest Cuban-American population; Charlotte is not even in the top 10. But American spokeswoman Leslie Scott has explained to us that after American merged with U.S. Airways, Charlotte became its largest hub outside of Dallas/Fort Worth.

Sure enough, the Department of Transportation picked Charlotte over Chicago. Direct flights also will go back and forth between Havana and New York City’s John F. Kennedy, Newark and Houston.

United put Newark atop its list, a good fit in an area where about 135,000 Cubans and Cuban-Americans reside. Next came Houston because it already is the airline’s major hub to Latin America, United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said. Washington Dulles, which wasn’t selected, rated higher than Chicago because it’s the nation’s capital.

American and United requested only one round-trip flight a week from O’Hare, which probably didn’t help Chicago’s chances of being picked. Most of the airlines that were picked promised daily round-trip service. American will have four flights daily from Miami.

The selection of airlines and airports is tentative but changes are not expected. Where does that leave Chicago? With a consolation prize. Last month Frontier Airlines received the go-ahead to fly direct between O’Hare and the Cuban cities of Matanzas and Santiago de Cuba. No offense to those towns, but they are not Havana.

Only 20 daily round-trip flights are allowed to Havana in the deal between the U.S. and Cuban governments. That left a number of cities out in the cold. If a route is found to be unprofitable, another slot could open.

We know which city should get it.

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