Cuba welcomes first commercial flight from US in over 50 years

Passengers arriving at the airport of Santa Clara, Cuba, on Aug 31, 2016.
Passengers arriving at the airport of Santa Clara, Cuba, on Aug 31, 2016.PHOTO: AFP
Ground crew hold US and Cuban flags as the JetBlue aeroplane arrives in Cuba.
Ground crew hold US and Cuban flags as the JetBlue aeroplane arrives in Cuba.PHOTO: REUTERS
Passengers deplane upon arriving at the airport of Santa Clara, Cuba, on Aug 31, 2016.
Passengers deplane upon arriving at the airport of Santa Clara, Cuba, on Aug 31, 2016.PHOTO: AFP
US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx arrives at the airport of Santa Clara, Cuba, on Aug 31, 2016, aboard the flight.
US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx arrives at the airport of Santa Clara, Cuba, on Aug 31, 2016, aboard the flight.PHOTO: AFP
Passenger Seth Miller of New York boards the Jetblue flight to Cuba on Aug 31, 2016, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Passenger Seth Miller of New York boards the Jetblue flight to Cuba on Aug 31, 2016, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. PHOTO: AFP
Passengers board the Jetblue flight to Cuba on Aug 31, 2016, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Passengers board the Jetblue flight to Cuba on Aug 31, 2016, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. PHOTO: AFP
Passengers board the JetBlue Airways flight from Fort Lauderdale in Florida on Aug 31, 2016.
Passengers board the JetBlue Airways flight from Fort Lauderdale in Florida on Aug 31, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

FORT LAUDERDALE, UNITED STATES (AFP) - The first regular commercial flight in more than 50 years from the United States landed in Cuba on Wednesday (Aug 31), as the two nations took the latest step in their efforts to boost ties.

JetBlue Flight 387 landed in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara a little before 11am (11pm Singapore time), about an hour after leaving Fort Lauderdale in southeastern Florida with 150 passengers on board.

The plane was greeted 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. Its departure from Florida was celebrated the same way.

The first two passengers off the plane carried US and Cuban flags as they descended the stairs onto the tarmac, where they symbolically exchanged the banners in a sign of friendship.

The plane was scheduled to complete the round trip later in the day, returning to Fort Lauderdale.

The flight was the first of 110 expected daily trips connecting US cities to airports in the Communist-run island, 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.

US Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the watershed.

“The 1st US commercial flight to # Cuba since 1961, just over a year after raising the flag at US Embassy Havana. Another step fwd,” he wrote on Twitter.

US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who was on the JetBlue flight, will meet with local officials during his visit, Cuba’s transport ministry 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.” The JetBlue flight was flown by Captain Mark Luaces and First Officer Francisco Barreras, both Americans of Cuban descent, the airline said.

One 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 – a reference to the rock bottom promotional ticket price starting at US$99 (S$134) one way, including checked bag.

“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.

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.

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 that include cultural workshops.

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 government.

Flights departing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia will head to the Cuban cities Camaguey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguin, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.