Friday, October 23, 2015

Port Authority boss asks United to reconsider Cuba flights

The head of the agency that runs New Jersey's main airport has joined with the state's governor in seeking to stop United Airlines from launching flights from there to Cuba until a woman convicted of killing a state trooper is returned to the United States.

A day after Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called on Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman John Degnan to reject service to Cuba, Degnan sent a letter to acting United CEO Brett Hart on Thursday urging United to reconsider.

Christie said in a letter to Degnan that flight service to Cuba is "unacceptable" until fugitive Joanne Chesimard is extradited, and Degnan agreed.

"As a former attorney general of New Jersey, who was appalled at the Cuban government's provision of sanctuary to Joanne Chesimard, I shared his sentiments," Degnan wrote.

Degnan said after a Port Authority board meeting in New York on Thursday that U.S. Customs and Border Protection, not the Port Authority, has the ultimate power to approve flights.

Chicago-based United Airlines has expressed interest in launching flight service from Newark Liberty International Airport to Cuba, as the U.S. continues to loosen travel restrictions as part of an effort to normalize relations between the nations.

United intends to request the flights once an agreement is reached between the nations under which airlines can apply to begin commercial air service, United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said Wednesday. Asked about Christie's letter, Johnson said, "We remain very interested in serving Cuba as soon as we are able to do so and believe United's service would benefit the airport and the region."

He said United had received Degnan's letter but had no comment beyond the earlier statement.

Chesimard was convicted in 1977 in the death of Trooper Werner Foerster during a gunfight after being stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. She was sentenced to life in prison but escaped and made her way to Cuba, where Fidel Castro granted her asylum and she has been living under the name Assata Shakur.

Christie, whose campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has had trouble gaining traction in a crowded field, has been a vocal critic of improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba, especially President Barack Obama's decision to remove Cuba from a U.S. terrorism blacklist.

Christie appointed Degnan to chair the Port Authority last year after former chairman David Samson resigned amid investigations into the agency, which runs area bridges, tunnels and transit hubs. Degnan served as New Jersey's attorney general from 1978 to 1981.

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