Santa Clara | The first commercial flight between the US and Cuba in more than a half century landed today in the central city of Santa Clara, 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 for the TV cameras at the tarmac.
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.”
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 normalizing relations with the island.
Historians disagree on the exact date of the last commercial flight but it appears to have been after Cuba banned incoming flights during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Secretary of State John Kerry said on Twitter that the last commercial flight was in 1961.
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.
“This is one of the most visible examples of the president’s activities to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba,” Foxx said.
“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.
Neta Rodriguez, a 62-year-old Havana-born South Florida homemaker, checked in this morning with her daughter, son-in-law and three grandsons for a visit to family in Santa Clara and Havana.
More than the historic nature of the flight, she said she appreciated the USD 200 price and the ability to book online instead of visiting a charter office. 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.
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.