JetBlue on Cuba travel: "We're ready to go"

With Cuban President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama meeting on Monday and a delegation discussing air services between the two countries, JetBlue (JBLU) is reading the tea leaves.

"We're ready to go," said Scott Laurence, senior vice president for airline planning at JetBlue. "We have plans on the shelf depending on how these air service talks turn out, and we're ready to react immediately."

The thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba could translate into a boon for American companies in the business of helping tourists make their way to the Caribbean nation. Travel from the U.S. to Cuba currently is restricted to only a few groups of people, such as Americans with relatives in Cuba, although those have eased in recent years. But one big roadblock remains: General leisure tourism from the U.S. is still forbidden.

Nevertheless, JetBlue on Monday said it will be adding a second charter flight between New York City's JFK airport and Havana, although the tickets are sold through a charter company called Cuba Travel Services.

Already, several American travel companies are edging into Cuba. Cruise operator Carnival (CCL) plans seven-night tours to the island starting next year. American Airlines (AAL) also has been adding flights to Cuba through Cuba Travel Services.

But those in the travel industry believe it won't be long before relations ease even further, allowing companies such as JetBlue to operate their own flights to Cuba. Among the issues under discussion by a U.S. delegation in Havana on Monday and Tuesday will be aviation security and safety. JetBlue believes regular commercial flights could start as early as the first half of 2016, Laurence noted.

Based on the popularity of Cuba as a destination among Canadian travelers, it's likely to be a top travel spot for Americans also, Laurence said.

"The U.S. has the potential to be the biggest market for visitors to Cuba," he said. "First and foremost, the ease with which people with family in Cuba can visit is top of mind for us. With tourism, I think there is such a great deal of interest in Cuba" partly because of its natural beauty and the mystique of the country.

Already, tourism is booming in Cuba, thanks to visitors from Canada and Europe. Abut 2.2 million visitors had traveled to Cuba through July, a boost of about 17 percent from 2014, according to The Wall Street Journal. Part of the allure is a desire to see Havana, with its diverse (and crumbling) architectural styles and its stockpile of pre-revolutionary classic cars.

"It's such as special place," Laurence said. "It's going to be a big draw."