(Adds congressional reaction, updates timing of House Cuba vote, paragraphs 16-20)
By Jeff Mason and Jeffrey Dastin
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK, July 7 (Reuters) - The United States has tentatively approved flights on eight U.S. airlines to Havana as early as this autumn, with American Airlines Group Inc receiving the largest share of the limited routes, the Transportation Department said on Thursday.
The decision, about a year after the United States and Cuba re-established diplomatic relations, includes 35 flights per week on American, the biggest U.S. airline in Latin America by flights. Its rival for Caribbean travel, JetBlue Airways Corp , was granted 27.
The department expects to reach a final decision on the routes later this summer. It also recommended flights to Havana on Delta Air Lines Inc, United Continental Holdings Inc , Southwest Airlines Co, Alaska Air Group Inc , Spirit Airlines Inc and Frontier Airlines.
The flights to Cuba’s capital would be the latest step closer for the former Cold War foes.
Last month, the Transportation Department gave airlines the green light to schedule flights to other cities in Cuba for the first time in decades. Until now, air travel to the Communist-ruled island has been limited to charter services.
Selecting carriers was a challenge for the Obama administration. Airlines applied for nearly triple the 20 daily round-trips that Cuba and the United States agreed to allow.
“The proposed slate of airlines will ensure service to areas of substantial Cuban-American population, as well as to important aviation hub cities,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.
“The department also sought to offer the public a wide array of travel choices in the type of airline such as network, low-cost and ultra low-cost carriers.”
Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which have the biggest Cuban-American communities in the United States, received the most flights at 83 per week among six airlines.
American won one-third of flights from South Florida. This may give it a leg up over rivals because it can offer corporate customers more convenient connections through Miami.
“It’s enough to make it a viable business-traveler schedule,” said aviation industry consultant Robert Mann.
Over time, U.S. airlines anticipate a bigger payout from Cuba than is typical for Caribbean destinations.
Strong demand will come from Cuban-Americans visiting relatives, experts said, as well as from executives traveling in business class to evaluate commercial opportunities.
“These flights open the door to a new world of travel and opportunities for our customers,” said Oscar Munoz, United’s chief executive officer. United will fly from Newark and Houston under the proposal.
Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando and Tampa will also offer nonstop service.
While a ban on tourism to Cuba remains U.S. law, President Barack Obama has authorized exceptions. Citizens that meet one of 12 criteria, such as visiting for unspecified educational purposes, can now visit Cuba.
The House of Representatives was to vote as soon as Thursday evening on a spending bill amendment that would essentially lift travel restrictions to Cuba for a year.
But most Republicans, who control Congress, oppose easing the restrictions, and congressional aides said they could not predict whether the measure would pass.
Republican Representative Jeff Duncan, chairman of a House western hemisphere subcommittee, said the decision put Americans at risk because Cuba has limited airport security and was also inappropriate because of Cuba’s poor human rights record.
But Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who has sponsored a bill to end Cuba travel restrictions, welcomed the news. “With U.S. airlines now poised to unleash the power of American travelers and their frequent flier miles, the time has come for Congress to eliminate the archaic restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba,” he said in a statement.
American said it hopes to begin Havana service in November.
Its shares rose 2.8 percent in afternoon trade while JetBlue shares added 1.3 percent. Southwest rose 1.6 percent and Delta was up nearly 2 percent. (Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)