American Airlines flying bigger jets so people can flee Haiti, after U.S. tells Americans to go

Two days after the U.S Embassy in Port-au-Prince urged U.S. citizens to leave as soon as possible, American Airlines on Friday began increasing seats available on its daily flight out of the country.

The largest airline at Miami International Airport, which had been using a smaller Airbus A319 with 128 seats on its route between Miami and Port-au-Prince since April, is temporarily switching back to a larger Boeing 737-800 plane, with 172 seats.

Laura Masvidal, a spokeswoman for American, said the larger aircraft will operate Friday and Saturday, and then again from September 7 to 20.

The bigger planes mean more availability for Haiti passengers who have for months faced limited options to leave the volatile country due to reduced flights by U.S. airlines and expensive airfares.

After September 20, American will resume using the smaller Airbus A319 for the Haiti flights, Masvidal said. Asked whether the temporary increase in seats was due to the U.S. Embassy’s order, Masvidal directed questions to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. The U.S. Department of State did not immediately respond Friday to an inquiry from the Miami Herald.

American’s temporary move provides U.S.-bound passengers with more options to escape Haiti’s escalating violence that has forced thousands from their homes and led to more deaths. In July, the State Department had ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel due to increase gunfire in the neighborhoods around the embassy compounds.

In its latest advisory, U.S. officials, which chartered a plane to pick up some embassy staff on Thursday, warned that flying out of Haiti requires passengers to book commercial flights days or weeks in advance. Also, due to a limited number of airlines that fly there and available seats, U.S. bound passengers have faced sticker shock on fares since spring. In April, for example, Herald reporting showed one-way tickets out of Port-au-Prince on American Airlines cost from $1,091 with a week’s planning to $3,404 for a last-minute airfare.

With escalating security challenges and a scarcity of flights to the U.S., Haitians have increasingly grown frustrated by the airfare price fluctuation.

Masvidal said since March American has had a fare cap for main cabin seats between Port-au-Prince and Miami and it will continue indefinitely. Under the cap, one-way main cabin fares are not supposed to exceed $716 excluding taxes and fees, she said.

The fare prices have been difficult for Haitian travelers, as well as those who still do mission work in the country. Mark Mendel, who does charity work in Haiti, sent an email in June to a Herald reporter saying that he found a one-way economy ticket on American from Port-au-Prince to Miami, with one-week notice, costing over $1,100.

In another move likely to help with the shortage of flights, Haiti-based carrier Sunrise Airway said it will start operating direct flights between Port-au-Prince and Miami airport, on September 15. The flight, using an Airbus A320, will be scheduled four times a week, Sunrise said.

Sunrise also will add flights between Cap-Haïtien and Miami four times a week starting September 26. The airline saw an increase in demand for U.S.-bound passengers flying to the Dominican Republic, in order to get to America. Fares to Miami from neighboring Dominican Republic are considerably less expensive.

Additional flight options are timely because demand has surged among Haitians looking to leave the country, especially those who have qualified to travel to the United States under President Biden’s recently launched two-year humanitarian parole program. The program allows nationals of Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela to temporarily migrate to the U.S., if they have an approved financial sponsor. Once approved, they are given three months to travel.

Since January, more than 50,000 Haitians have arrived in the U.S. under the program. According to the Biden administration, 63,000 Haitians have so far been vetted and approved.

Meanwhile, the State Department currently has its highest travel advisory — “Do Not Travel” — set for Haiti. However, that has not stopped travel into the country. This summer, Haitians visited by the planeloads to participate in festivals in their hometown. Though most are located outside of Port-au-Prince, travel often required landing in the capital first and then flying to other regions.

Jimmy Moise, a Fort Lauderdale resident and international event organizer, said he paid $1,100 in August to fly roundtrip between Fort Lauderdale and Cap-Haïtien, for a 90-minute flight on discount carrier Spirit Airlines. Moise organizes an annual Dîner en Blanc party in the Haitian city. Between the high airfares, limited flights and the violence in Port-au-Prince, Moise said many of his 800 attendees had to get creative. Traveling from the U.S., Canada and Europe, people have gotten to Haiti, he said, by way of neighboring Dominican Republic and crossed the border in buses and cars.

Spirit plans to continue operating its direct flights as scheduled from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Port-au Prince and Cap-Haïtien, company spokeswoman Nicole Aguiar said. But, “we’re monitoring the situation,” she said. Aguiar declined to comment about the fare prices between Fort Lauderdale and Haiti.

In October 2018, American Airlines had six daily flights between the U.S. and Haiti, including four daily from Miami and a daily flight to Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city. It also had direct flights between Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince and Fort Lauderdale airport, as well as New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

By early 2023, American was down to one daily flight between Miami and Port-au-Prince. In April, it began flying the smaller Airbus A319 planes. Then in June and July, American had no flights in or out of Haiti on Tuesdays. It resumed daily flights on August 2.

JetBlue, which also flies to Haiti, has reduced its flight service, too. The airline flies between Fort Lauderdale and Port-au-Prince. The airline also flies limited direct flights from Port-au-Prince to New York. JetBlue did not respond to a Herald reporter’s requests for comment.