Cuba and the United States take the latest step in their efforts to boost ties as the first regular commercial flight from America to the communist-ruled island in more than 50 years takes off.
Maiden commercial flight from US to Cuba takes off
Maiden commercial flight from US to Cuba takes off Fort Lauderdale (United States) – 31 August 2016 10:38 – AFP (Leila MACOR) / WRAP – UPDATE Cuba and the United States took the latest step in their efforts to boost ties Wednesday when the first regular commercial flight from America to the communist-ruled island in more than 50 years took off. JetBlue Flight 386 left Fort Lauderdale in southeastern Florida shortly after 10:00 am (1400 GMT) with 150 passengers on board. After less than an hour in the air, it will land in central Cuba’s Santa Clara, 175 miles (280 kilometers) east of Havana. The flight is the first of dozens of daily trips connecting US cities to nine Cuban airports, many of them in or near tourism hotspots. Regular air service was severed during the Cold War, and charter flights have been the only air links since. “It’s a new day for Cuba travelers and one we have thoughtfully prepared for. We are proud to usher in a new era of Cuba travel with affordable fares and great service,” JetBlue’s executive vice president Marty St George said. The Fort Lauderdale airport was in full party mode near Jet Blue’s departure area — a live salsa band blared Cuban favorites as passengers and bystanders broke into spontaneous dances. There were cheers, applause and a sea of balloons as boarding for the historic flight got underway. For some, there were also tears of joy. “I am so proud, so overcome with emotion,” said Domingo Santana, 53, who left Cuba when he was just six years old. Since then, he said, “I’ve never been in my country. I don’t know my country,” adding: “It’s a great opportunity.” – History in the making – Wednesday’s JetBlue flight will be flown by Captain Mark Luaces and First Officer Francisco Barreras, both Americans of Cuban descent, the airline said. The plane was sent off with a water cannon salute, an aviation tradition in which aircraft pass under arcs of water before flying to their destinations for the first time. Mark Gale, director of operations for the airport, said it was one of the “great moments in history,” likening it to the moon landing or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Another passenger, Aleisy Barreda, 46, was overcome with emotion. “This reopening has really benefitted us,” she gushed. “Not only in terms of the ticket prices, but also in terms of how much easier it is to purchase them,” she said. “Now we only need more vacation time!” The last regular commercial flight between the two countries took place in 1961, when air links fell victim to the Cold War. Air travel between the United States and Cuba has been restricted to charter flights since 1979. Washington and Havana agreed in February to restore direct commercial flights — one of several watershed changes initiated in December 2014, when US President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro announced a thaw after more than 50 years of hostility. Diplomatic relations were restored in July 2015. – Special salute – US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is also set to travel to Cuba this week to meet with local officials, Cuba’s transport ministry said. Washington still bans Americans from visiting Cuba as tourists, but travel is permitted for 12 other categories, including cultural and educational exchange. The renewed links are a “milestone” in relations between the United States and Cuba, said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. Regular flights “will allow more fluid movement of people, goods, information and ideas between two places that are very close geographically but distant politically,” he said. – Cuba: ‘hot’ travel destination – Of the 3.5 million tourists in Cuba in 2015, only 161,000 were Americans. However, that number was up 77 percent from the previous year and Americans are now expected to become a major component in a growth industry expected to reach 6.8 million visitors in 2018. Travel agents said US interest in making the short journey to the island has skyrocketed. “There’s a lot of interest in Cuba. It’s the hot, ‘in’ place right now,” said Frank Gonzalez, owner of the Mambi travel agency which offers packages to the island from the United States, including tours with workshops in the island’s musical traditions and distinctive aspects of its culture, such as the Yoruba-based religion santeria. Twenty daily routes to Havana are pending. The airlines designated to fly to the nine Cuban airports — not including Havana — include American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines, according to the US Department of Transportation. Flights will depart from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, slated to land in the Cuban cities Camaguey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguin, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.