(Adds airline comments on competition)
By Jeffrey Dastin
March 2 (Reuters) - Top U.S. airlines on Wednesday said they were seeking regulatory approval to start flying specific routes to Cuba, ramping up competition over a limited number of opportunities to serve one of the industry’s last frontiers.
Dramatizing their eagerness for the coveted flights, American Airlines Group Inc, JetBlue Airways Corp and others argued why they were best suited for the routes in memos that at times were critical of one another.
U.S. and Cuban officials signed an arrangement two weeks ago restoring commercial air service between the countries for the first time in decades. U.S. carriers had until March 2 to submit route applications to the U.S. Transportation Department.
The arrangement, in the works after the Cold War foes said they would normalize ties in Dec. 2014, allows 20 round-trip flights per day from the United States to Havana and 10 round-trip flights per day to nine other airports in Cuba.
But proposals by airlines appear to have exceeded the cap to Havana by at least 19 flights per day, with requests even higher for certain days of the week.
American Airlines Group Inc, which has the widest Latin America network of its peers, asked for 10 daily flights to Havana from its Miami hub, one per day from its hubs in Charlotte and Dallas/Fort Worth and one per week from Los Angeles and Chicago.
American said in its publicly filed application that there were 10 times the number of Cuban-Americans living in Miami-Dade county than in nearby Broward county, where its main rival to the Caribbean, JetBlue, has its large Fort Lauderdale operation.
Separately, JetBlue said Wednesday it requested four daily flights to Havana from Fort Lauderdale, two from Tampa, Orlando and New York and one from Boston and Newark.
In its application, JetBlue called American’s Miami hub “chaotic” and more expensive per passenger compared to Fort Lauderdale.
It added that the U.S. Transportation Department should support competition “rather than continuing the status quo by rewarding legacy carriers and increasing their market share.”
The government agency has said it will try to maximize public benefit in assigning the flights.
Southwest Airlines Co, United Continental Holdings Inc and Delta Air Lines Inc also filed extensive route requests, with Delta arguing its proposed Miami routes were necessary to counterbalance American’s otherwise market dominance.
Analysts expect strong demand for airline travel from Cuban-Americans visiting relatives, leisure travelers desiring a once off-limits experience and executives evaluating commercial opportunities.
“Our application is based on where the traffic is today,” American’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Howard Kass said in an interview, referring to high demand for its existing charter flights to the communist-ruled island.
The Republican majority in Congress has defied U.S. President Barack Obama’s call to rescind a long-standing trade embargo, which includes a general tourism ban to Cuba. Obama has used his executive authority to relax some travel restrictions, however.
U.S. travelers must meet at least one of 12 criteria to visit, such as taking part in educational tours or visiting family in Cuba. (Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Havana; Editing by Tom Brown, David Gregorio and Andrew Hay)