Commercial flights resume between US and Cuba after 50 years

The United States and Cuba have resumed commercial air service more than half a century after breaking trade ties at height of the cold war.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

The first passenger to board Jet Blue Flight, Seth Miller of New York, walks past cameras at Fort Lauderdale International Airport, Florida.

Updated Sep 1, 2016

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 Wednesday morning, re-establishing regular air service severed at the height of the Cold War.

Cheers broke out in the cabin of JetBlue flight 387 as the plane touched down.

Passengers — mostly airline executives, US government officials and journalists, with a sprinkling of Cuban-American families and US travelers — were given gift bags with Cuban cookbooks, commemorative luggage tags and Cuban flags, which they were encouraged to wave.

The arrival opens a new era of US-Cuba travel with about 300 flights a week connecting the US with an island cut off from most Americans by the 55-year-old trade embargo on Cuba and formal ban on US citizens engaging in tourism on the island.

"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, author of the new book "Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy."

Ground crews hold US and Cuban flags near the JetBlue aircraft, which made history on Wednesday. Source: Reuters

The US Department of Transportation also announced that eight carriers have been selected to operate routes to Havana.

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 normalising relations with the island.

US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes both addressed passengers on board the 150-seat Airbus A320, which 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.

"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 Monday.

US travel to Cuba is on track to triple this year to more than 300,000 visitors in the wake of the 2014 declaration of detente.

JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes (L) and Cuban Ambassador to the US Jose Ramon Cabanes stand next to an inaugural artwork commemorating the first commercial flight between the two countries at Fort Lauderdale International Airport.

Cuba's cash-starved centrally planned economy has been bolstered by the boom in US visitors, along with hundreds of thousands of travelers from other nations hoping to see Cuba before more Americans arrive.

Many of the air routes are currently used by expensive charter flights that are largely expected to go out of business with the advent of regularly scheduled service from the US.

Hundreds of thousands of Cuban-born Americans fly to the island each year with the chaotic, understaffed charter companies, which 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 US travelers to Cuba.

Cuban officials insist the continuing US ban on tourism will limit the impact of commercial flights to Cuba, but some experts believe the drastic reduction in the difficulty of flying to Cuba could turn the surge in US 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 US 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.

TRTWorld, AP