The United States and Cuba have agreed to restore scheduled commercial airline service for the first time in more than five decades in a deal allowing 110 round-trip flights a day.
Announced a year to the day after the two countries embarked on a process of normalising ties, the latest accord will not go into effect immediately but should eventually increase tourism and business on the communist-ruled island.
Under the agreement, US airlines will be able to sell tickets for flights to Cuba but they must first apply for permission from US regulators to fly specific routes. Charter flights operated by US carriers already connect the countries.
The United States and Cuba have agreed to allow 110 round-trip flights on US airlines to Cuba per day, according to Thomas Engle, deputy assistant secretary for transportation affairs at the US State Department.
That includes 20 flights to Havana and 10 to each of the other nine international airports in Cuba, he said, adding that no date has been set for final signing of the aviation pact but that nothing was expected to derail it.
There will likely be a 60-to-90 day process during which US-based carriers will submit proposed routes, suggesting scheduled flights would not begin until the first few months of 2016 at the earliest.
The decision to restore ties, made by US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro a year ago, in part reflected Washington's judgment that its policy of isolating Havana politically, economically and diplomatically had failed.
While US officials still criticise Cuba for human rights, they now believe promoting political and other freedoms is more likely to be achieved through engagement.
Although the agreement will eventually make it easier to travel between the countries, the US ban on general tourism to the Caribbean island remains in force.
US travellers still must meet at least one of 12 criteria to visit, such as visiting family in Cuba or taking part in educational tours or journalistic activity.
STILL MANY US-CUBAN DIFFERENCES
"We continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but we raise those issues directly, and we will always stand for human rights and the universal values that we support around the globe," Obama said in a written statement.
The United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro ousted US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a revolution that steered the island on a leftist course and made it a close ally of the Soviet Union.
Since last year's detente, the countries have restored diplomatic ties and reopened their embassies. Obama has also taken steps to encourage closer business ties with the island.
However, the longstanding US trade embargo on the island remains in place and the United States' Republican-controlled Congress has resisted Obama's calls to lift it.
Cuba's human rights record still draws criticism from Washington, and Castro's government has made clear the diplomatic opening does not mean Havana plans to change its one-party political system.
SURGE IN TOURISM
The 110 round-trip flights per day quota was negotiated in anticipation of an end to the tourism ban, and designed to encourage airlines to lobby Congress for access, said John Kavulich, president of the non-profit US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which promotes trade between the nations.
"This is as much a political document as it is a transportation document," he said. "That's by design... Both countries are recognising that the numbers need to be high so there's a heightened interest by the carriers to want the routes."
Kavulich said a flood of US visitors might be "disruptive" to Cuba's one-party political system, but stressed that the Cuban government needs the revenue.
Cuba's embassy in Washington said in a statement on the airline deal that the countries reiterated their commitment to flight security and to protecting civil aviation "from acts of unlawful interference."
Kavulich said this was likely a reference to the possibility that people with claims against Cuba might seek to seize Cuban assets in the United States and he suggested that the United States might do its best to protect such assets.
Aircraft landing in the United States must meet US safety standards, so older Russian planes in the Cuban fleet will likely only fly domestically within Cuba.
Under the deal, airlines from both countries will be able to make commercial agreements such as sharing flight codes and leasing planes to each other, it said.
JetBlue Airways, which already operates charter flights to Cuba, said it plans to apply to schedule service once it has reviewed the aviation deal.
Other US airlines - American, Delta and United - have expressed interest in scheduling flights to Cuba.
Obama's decision to relax travel restrictions to Cuba earlier this year has led to a boom in US citizens' visits to Cuba, which are up 71 percent this year, with 138,120 Americans arriving to November.