Inaugural commercial flight from US lands in Cuba
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Inaugural commercial flight from US lands in Cuba

150 passengers make journey, marking first of 110 expected trips a day, linking long-time foes

Passengers deplane upon arriving at the airport of Santa Clara, Cuba on August 31, 2016 on the first commercial flight between the United States and Cuba since 1961. (AFP Photo/Yamil Lage)
Passengers deplane upon arriving at the airport of Santa Clara, Cuba on August 31, 2016 on the first commercial flight between the United States and Cuba since 1961. (AFP Photo/Yamil Lage)

SANTA CLARA, Cuba (AP) — The first regular commercial flight in more than 50 years from the United States landed in Cuba on Wednesday, 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 11:00 a.m. local 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 first commercial flight between the United States and Cuba since 1961 lands in Santa Clara, Cuba on August 31, 2016. (AFP Photo/Yamil Lage)
The first commercial flight between the United States and Cuba since 1961 lands in Santa Clara, Cuba on August 31, 2016. (AFP Photo/Yamil Lage)

The flight was the first of 110 expected trips every day 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 event.

“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, has plans to meet with local officials, Cuba’s transport ministry said.

Party in Florida

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 6-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 was flown by Captain Mark Luaces and First Officer Francisco Barreras, both Americans of Cuban descent, the airline said.

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.

Passengers check in at the ticket counter in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport for JetBlue Flight 387 the first scheduled commercial flight to Cuba since 1961 on August 31, 2016. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)
Passengers check in at the ticket counter in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport for JetBlue Flight 387 the first scheduled commercial flight to Cuba since 1961, on August 31, 2016. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)

“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.

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.Washington still bans Americans from visiting Cuba as tourists, but travel is permitted for 12 other categories, including cultural and educational exchange.

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.

Young Cuban American Miranda Hernandez, center, talks with other young persons that traveled with CubaOne program in Havana, Cuba on June 12, 2016 (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Young Cuban American Miranda Hernandez, center, talks with other young persons that traveled with CubaOne program in Havana, Cuba on June 12, 2016 (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

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.

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