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JetBlue makes history as U.S. and Cuba renew regular air travel

After a break of 55 years the United States and Cuba renewed regular scheduled airline flights on Wednesday. Soon there will be dozens of flights a week between several cities.
31 Ago 2016 – 12:58 AM EDT
Passengers aboard JetBlue Flight #387 to Santa Clara waved Cuban and U.S. flags to mark the first regular scheduled commercial flight to the communist-run island in 55 years. Crédito: Pablo Cozzaglio

FORT LAUDERDALE/SANTA CLARA - It was only a 52-minute flight, barely time for a soda.

But it was historic nonetheless, celebrated with a fanfare of cupcakes, salsa music and ribbon-cutting speeches.

On Wednesday, JetBlue made the first regularly scheduled flight between the United States and Cuba since 1961 in what was another major milestone for improving relations between the two former Cold War foes.

For some passengers it was a matter of convenience and low cost. For decades flights to Cuba were an expensive trip on restricted charters, mostly serving Cuban Americans visiting their relatives, with costs running as high as $700.

For others it was an emotional reconnection, a long-awaited moment in history.

Domingo Santana, 53, was so determined to visit the country of his birth more than 40 years after he left, that he called JetBlue immediately tickets went on sale. “I’ve been waiting for this to happen a long, long time,” he said, holding his $220 ticket for seat 1A on flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale to the central Cuban city of Santa Clara.

“Before I died I wanted to go home. I don’t know my country. I feel like Christopher Columbus,” he said, explaining that he had no family or hotel reservation in Cuba, and planned to rely on the Lonely Planet guide to get around. “I’ll figure it out when I get there,” he said.

Shortly after JetBlue landed in Havana the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a major expansion of approved commercial flights to Cuba, to include service to Havana by eight major U.S. carriers from 10 U.S. cities. The decision awarded the routes to American, JetBlue, Delta, United, Southwest, Spirit, Alaska and Frontier, from Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, New York, Newark, Charlotte, Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.

The two countries agreed in February to restore normal commercial airline services after diplomatic relations were restored last year, with several airlines due to start operations soon from six U.S. cities.

Wednesday's first flight took off less than six months after Barack Obama made the first visit to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president in 88 years. In May, the first U.S. cruise ship docked in Cuba.

"It's a whole new era," said Richard Feinberg, a Cuba expert at the University of California, San Diego and former special assistant to President Bill Clinton for national security affairs.

"Having U.S. commercial airlines landing routinely all around the island creates a psychological impact of openness, newness and hope," he added. It could also be a huge boost for the cash-strapped Cuban economy still held back by a heavily state-controlled socialist model.

If the airlines fill the flights, they could carry carrying up to two million Americans and add $400 to $500 million a year in tourist revenue for Cuba, said Feinberg.

About half the seats were filled with TV cameramen and reporters, so much so that JetBlue President Robin Hayes said he had never seen “so much media interest in a flight.” Passengers decked out their seats on Flight #387 with Cuban flags in the headrests.

“This really is an historic occasion. For those of us in South Florida Cuba was close, yet it could have been Mars,” said Stacy Ritter, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau at a pre-boarding ribbon cutting event in the airport.

“It’s a day that’s almost hard to express in words. My heart is filled with joy,” she said. “We can finally get to know the Cuban people and they can get to know us.”

Color TVs were still a luxury when the flights ceased in 1961, a casualty of the breakdown in relations with the island after Cuban leader Fidel Castro took power.

In those days, the route was served by propeller planes. Wednesday’s flight was aboard a modern Airbus 320 jet.

Fort Lauderdale airport CEO Mark Gale compared it to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969. “I don’t suggest today’s flight rivals walking on the moon,” he said, before adding a twist to the astronaut’s legendary words upon setting foot on the plant’s surface. The Cuba trip was “a short flight for JetBlue; one huge advancement for reconnecting the world’s humanity,” he said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was also on the flight. Sources told Univision that Foxx was due to meet with Cuban officials in Havana later on Wednesday.

Not everyone was so thrilled about flying down to Cuba.

Despite entertaining passengers at the departure gate with salsa music, Cuban American singer Carlos Rubio said he had no interest on returning to the communist-run island. A former speed skater, he defected from the Cuban team in 1993, at age 18.

“Let them travel, but not me,” he said. “Not until Fidel is gone. I never liked the [communist] system down there.”

JetBlue initially will operate three flights a week before going to daily service on Oct. 1. American Airlines will follow up the next week with commercial airline service from Miami. American will be offering 56 weekly flights to five Cuban cities, but so far not including Havana.

Despite the extra flights, rules on travel to Cuba are still restricted to 12 categories by the U.S. Treasury Department, including educational, religious and humanitarian projects, among others. General tourism, including Cuba's famous beaches popular with Canadian and Europeans, remains prohibited under the embargo.

Cuba’s ambassador to Washington, Jose Ramon Cabanas, was on hand for the ribbon-cutting, but was more guarded about the history being made. In a brief speech, he said Cuba hoped to expand its bilateral aviation relations "based on mutual respect.”

In a thinly veiled reference to the embargo, he added: “We hope that all remaining obstacles that limit exchange between our countries will be removed.”

JetBlue will provide passengers with an affidavit to certify they are traveling under one of the approved categories, as well as health insurance. “Our whole thing is demystifying travel to Cuba. We’re trying to make this as streamlined as possible,” said JetBlue spokesman Philip Stewart.

The presence of U.S. airlines could serve as an impetus for other U.S. companies seeking to open offices in Cuba, some experts say. "Regularly-scheduled commercial service lessens the stigma of traveling to Cuba," said John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. "Charter flights reinforced an aura of restrictions, forbidding, abnormal," he said.

Political repercussions may also follow. Bipartisan legislation introduced in Congress in June, known as the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, would remove all restrictions on tourism.

Wednesday marks "a turning point in U.S. relations with Cuba as more affordable and easier commercial flights now make travel to Cuba an option for that many more Americans," said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, which backs closer ties, including ending a longstanding U.S. economic embargo against Cuba which is still in force despite the improved relations.

"As more and more Americans visit our island neighbor and talk to everyday Cubans, the more Americans will see that the embargo is just an outdated relic of the Cold War era,” Williams added.

Following the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the easing of travel restrictions, U.S. travel to Cuba nearly doubled over the last year. With the restoration of scheduled flights, that number is expected to increase sharply.

In 2015, the Cuban government reported 161,233 Americans visited, compared to 91,254 in 2014, and arrivals through June nearly doubled over the same period last year.

American Airlines says it has already begun shipping equipment to all five Cuban airports it will serve to handle check-ins and to train Cuban employees.

However, due to Cuba's weak infrastructure of hotels and other travel logistics, such as roads and ports, the explosion in U.S. tourism to the Caribbean island won't happen overnight, despite the new flights, experts say.

Cuba's record 3.5 million foreign arrivals last year stretched its current capacity to the limit.

"This is a great opportunity for Cuba. Now we have to see if the government takes advantage," said Emilio Morales, president of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group. "They have to get moving and put aside the political rhetoric," he added, noting that the Cuban government has yet to shed its distrust of U.S. capitalism.

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