After 50 years, commercial flights resume to Cuba
The first commercial flight between the United States and Cuba in more than a half-century landed in the central city of Santa Clara on August 31. It established regular air service. Regular flights between the countries ended at the height of the Cold War.
Cheers broke out in the cabin of JetBlue flight 387 as the plane touched down. The passengers were mostly airline executives, U.S. government officials and journalists. In addition, there was a sprinkling of Cuban-American families and U.S. travelers. They were given gift bags with Cuban cookbooks, commemorative luggage tags and Cuban flags. The visitors were encouraged to wave the flags.
The arrival of the flight to Santa Cruz from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, opens a new era of U.S.-Cuba travel. Soon, about 300 flights a week will connect the U.S. with the island nation. It has been cut off from most Americans. That is because of a 55-year-old trade embargo on Cuba. There also has been a formal ban on U.S. citizens visiting the island as tourists.
The flights will go to Havana and Santa Cruz in Cuba. Havana is the country's capital.
"Seeing the American airlines landing routinely around the island will drive a sense of openness, integration and normality. That has a huge psychological impact," said Richard Feinberg. He is author of a new book, "Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy."
The U.S. Department of Transportation said in a statement that American airlines will serve Havana from Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York City, Orlando and Tampa.
Airlines are obligated to begin flights within 90 days, right after Thanksgiving. But they may begin earlier. Delta said it would launch daily service December 1 from Atlanta, Miami and New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. Flights will go on sale September 10.
Spirit also said it aims to run twice-a-day flights to Havana. They will begin December 1, from Fort Lauderdale.
The restart of commercial travel between the two countries is one of the most important steps in President Barack Obama's two-year-old policy of normalizing relations with the island. Historians disagree on the exact date of the last commercial flight. It appears to have been after Cuba banned incoming flights. That was during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Secretary of State John Kerry said on Twitter that the last commercial flight was in 1961.
On August 31, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes addressed passengers on board the 150-seat Airbus A320 to Cuba. The plane was staffed by a specially selected five-member crew of Cuban-Americans. Airline executives changed from American business attire into loose-fitting Cuban-style guayabera shirts before landing.
"This is one of the most visible examples of the president's activities to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba," Foxx said.
"It's a positive step and a concrete contribution to the process of improving relations between the two countries," Cuba's vice minister of transportation Eduardo Rodriguez told journalists.
Neta Rodriguez is a 62-year-old Havana-born South Florida homemaker. She checked in August 31 with her daughter, son-in-law and three grandsons for a visit to family in Santa Clara and Havana.
She said she appreciated the $200 price and the ability to book online instead of visiting a charter office. U.S. travel to Cuba is on track to triple this year to more than 300,000 visitors.
Commercial flights are expected to significantly increase the number of American visitors, although it's not clear by how much. Many of the air routes are currently used by expensive charter flights that are largely expected to go out of business with the regularly scheduled service from the U.S.
Hundreds of thousands of Cuban-born Americans fly to the island each year with the chaotic, understaffed charter companies. These require four-hour check-in waits and charge high rates for any luggage in excess of restrictive baggage allowances. Americans without ties to Cuba have found it hard to negotiate the charters, most of which don't accept online bookings or help travelers navigate the federal affidavit still required for U.S. travelers to Cuba.
Some experts believe the drastic reduction in the difficulty of flying to Cuba could turn the surge in U.S. visitors into a tidal wave. Americans are allowed to visit the island on "people-to-people" cultural and educational visits, among other reasons.
Americans who fit one of 12 categories will now be able to fill out a federal affidavit by clicking a box on an online form and, in many cases, buy their Cuban tourist visa near the check-in counters of U.S. airports. Within weeks, Americans will be able to fly direct from cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis, Miami and Fort Lauderdale to eight Cuban cities and two beach resorts.