Santa Clara (Cuba) (AFP) – The United States and Cuba took their efforts to build better ties into the skies on Wednesday, with the first regular commercial flight between the two countries in more than 50 years.
JetBlue Flight 387 landed in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara a little before 11:00 am (1500 GMT), 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.
“It is very exciting to come here because it is so hard to travel to Cuba,” said American Leanne Spencer, accompanied by her 17-year-old daughter Natalie, both traveling to the Communist-run island for the first time.
“In the aircraft, we had drinks and celebrated. It was very fun, we had a good time and we took pictures with the Cuban flag,” said Spencer, who works in the travel industry.
The flight was the first of 110 expected daily trips connecting US cities to airports in Cuba, many of them in or near tourism hotspots.
Regular air service between the neighbors was severed during the Cold War, and charter flights have been the only air links since.
“Another step fwd,” US Secretary of State John Kerry 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.”
– Milestone –
The JetBlue flight was flown by Captain Mark Luaces and First Officer Francisco Barreras, both Americans of Cuban descent, the airline said.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
For Havana, the US Department of Transportation said Wednesday that eight airlines would operate daily flights to the capital: Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit Airlines, and United Airlines.
The US cities operating the links are Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York, Orlando, and Tampa.