First US-Cuba commercial flight in more than 50 years lands in Santa Clara

150-seater plane was packed with officials, journalists, and travellers of Cuban descent

JetBlue Flight 387 pushes back from the gate as it prepares for take off to become the first scheduled commercial flight to Cuba since 1961 on August 31st, 2016 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. JetBlue which hopes to have as many as 110 daily flights is the first US airline to resume regularly scheduled airline service under new rules allowing Americans greater access to Cuba. Photograph:  Joe Raedle/Getty Images

JetBlue Flight 387 pushes back from the gate as it prepares for take off to become the first scheduled commercial flight to Cuba since 1961 on August 31st, 2016 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. JetBlue which hopes to have as many as 110 daily flights is the first US airline to resume regularly scheduled airline service under new rules allowing Americans greater access to Cuba. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

A JetBlue Airways Corp passenger jet landed in Santa Clara, Cuba on Wednesday, becoming the first scheduled passenger flight from the United States to the communist island in more than a half century.

The 150-seat Airbus A320 which was packed with officials, journalists, and regular travellers, including some of Cuban descent, touched down in what the Obama administration hopes will usher in an era of more routine travel to and from the Communist-ruled island.

The first of several US carriers to begin serving Cuba in the coming months, the airplane took off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, landing in Santa Clara, a central city known for its monument to revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Lazaro Chavez, a 49-year-old pharmacist who lives in Miami and returns frequently to his homeland, said before boarding the plane he was taking the flight for two reasons. “One, I am going to see my family. Two, I want to be on this historic flight.”

Normalising relations

Cuba and the United States began normalising relations in December 2014 after 18 months of secret talks and have since restored full diplomatic ties. The countries had been hostile for more than five decades, since Fidel Castro ousted US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 revolution that steered the island on a communist course and made it a close ally of the Soviet Union.

Despite the opening, which has included a landmark visit to the Caribbean island by Barack Obama in March, the US president has been unable to persuade Congress to lift a long-standing trade embargo on Cuba.

US citizens are still prohibited from visiting as tourists, although there have long been exceptions to the ban, ranging from visiting family to business, cultural, religious and educational travel. The Obama administration has further eased the restrictions.

Airline carriers

Despite the travel limitations, US airlines have rushed to start flights, adding a lot of capacity and setting themselves up to lose money on the trips in the short run, said industry consultant Robert Mann.

“Most carriers look at international markets that have been restricted and are just opening up as an investment,” Mr Mann said. “You need to get your foot in the door.”

Services on regional carrier Silver Airways and American Airlines Group Inc from the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area that is home to a large Cuban-American population, to Cuba’s outlying provinces will be the next to start, in September. Three other carriers will follow.

Mr Mann said the companies probably offered to fly to Cuban cities that are unfamiliar to many American travellers, so that US officials would look favourably on their applications to fly to Havana.

A memorandum of understanding between Cuba and the United States will limit Havana flights to 20 round trips per day. US officials have yet to announce a final decision on which companies will get those coveted routes.

“The Havana competition was one of the most over-subscribed competitions that I’ve been a part of,” US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx said in an interview before the plane took off.

“I think that speaks to the interest on the part of the American people, and it also speaks to the level of commercial interest in the US that exists.”

Reuters