First US-Cuba flight in 55 years packed with history

01 September 2016

A mother and daughter from Utah took a chance to experience history. A couple saved money so they could see family. A woman returned home for a quick vacation. And a man finally had a chance at reunion with his children - nearly a decade since their separation.

These and tens of other stories boarded Flight 387 on JetBlue in Fort Lauderdale Wednesday morning for a historical moment - the first commercial flight from the USA to Cuba in 55 years.

About 150 passengers, including some 75 journalists and US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, took the sold-out, 72-minute trip to the central Cuban city of Santa Clara at about 10 am Wednesday. The flight was wheels down in Abel Santamaria Airport, located three hours east of Havana, just after 11 am. Some journalists, including the Miami Herald – which has contributed largely to this report - were denied visa requests to be among passengers on the flight.

The send-off in Fort Lauderdale included pastelitos, Cuban sandwiches, croquettes and even a cake in the shape of a cigar box. Hundreds of journalists and JetBlue personnel packed into Gate F7 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to celebrate another step in the ever-warming relations between the two countries since President Barack Obama announced the reestablishment of ties with Cuba in December 2014.

As the plane, an Airbus A320 named 'Keep Blue and Carry On,'' turned on the runway, two Broward firetrucks sprayed ceremonial cannons overhead. Piloting it were Captain Mark Luaces, raised in Miami to Cuban parents who came to the US as teenagers, and First Officer Francisco Barreras', whose parents migrated to the US in 1961, the year commercial flights ceased.

''This is definitely one of the proudest moments in JetBlue's history,'' JetBlue president and chief executive Robin Hayes said in an interview.

Among the media frenzy and officials were families that now have to jump less hurdles to travel home.

In the years since 1961, charters have operated flights to Cuba, often cash-only and at twice the cost of the current flights JetBlue and other airline carriers are offering to Cuba. American Airlines and Silver Airways will also start regular flights to the island in the coming week. The airlines received approval to fly to nine airports, excluding Havana, this summer.

''I heard the news [of the commercial flights] and immediately got on the computer, I wanted to see if it was true,'' said Aleisis Barreda, who is traveling to Cuba for a Labor Day weekend trip to see family in Ciego de Ávila. ''When I saw that it was true I didn't want to lose the opportunity because I saw that it was exciting to book a flight from the comfort of my home, with my credit card and pay for it for a price exuberantly cheaper.''

Barreda said that her flight on JetBlue - booked for $239 round trip compared to the usual $490 she paid on charters - offered the comforts of other commercial flights, such as picking your seat ahead of traveling and not being required to arrive at the airport three to five hours early. Now she can go on short trips to Cuba, rather than having to make the most of her more expensive trips with 15-day stays, she said.

The other airlines are also offering comparatively low prices to fly to Cuba.

''Being part of this first flight excites me because I can perhaps share my experience with other people who can also do the same as me - start going to Cuba,'' Barreda said.

To be sure, flying commercial creates some limitations in terms of baggage - a major component of charter flights that families have taken advantage of to take provisions to family members on the island.

The first bag, up to 50 pounds, is included on JetBlue. Passengers are limited to two bags but must pay $35 for a second bag and oversize fees for bags that weigh more than 50 pounds. That gets capped at 70 pounds. Boxes, in which Cuban travellers generally took TVs and laptops to family, won't be allowed. Earlier this month, American Airlines also got pushback for its baggage policy, which allows up to five bags or boxes but with growing fees for each, and said it was revising its policy.

Travellers to Cuba will also be faced with additional paperwork due to a US embargo that is still in place on the island nation. Americans who wish to travel there must prove they fall under 12 categories of travel, which excludes travel for strictly tourism. Travellers will still need to obtain an entrance visa, the most common form of which is referred to as a tourist card or visa. JetBlue said it has bundled an affidavit form into the sign-up process so travellers can prove they fulfil one of the 12 categories of travel at booking and will also sell visas upon check-in for about $50. Visas for business or media won't be available at check-in.

At the celebration in Fort Lauderdale for the first flight, Cuba's Ambassador to the US, José Ramón Cabañas, defined the moment as historic, but also skirted questions about whether Cuba is ready to receive regular service from the US.

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