FORT LAUDERDALE — To be on an inaugural flight to Cuba, before today, meant that you’d have to be born before the early 1960s. The last scheduled commercial flight between the two countries happened over a half century ago.
That’s why today’s JetBlue flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL), to Santa Clara, Cuba (SNU), is a historic one.
As the 150-seat Airbus A320 rolled down to the runway, it became the first scheduled flight between the United States and Cuba since 1961.
This event marks one of the latest steps between both countries to normalize their diplomatic ties, a process that started in December 2014, and, so far, has allowed air travel to be slightly easier.
The lifting of restrictions on remittances, U.S. banks’ access to the Cuban financial system, and the reopening of embassies in Washington D.C. and Havana—both closed since the breakup of relations after Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union—were the first steps into reestablishing relationships between the two governments.
Back in the 1960s, an embargo on all business with the Communist island nation went into effect, and it has endured for over five decades.
Apart from humanitarian and occasional relief flights, some special flights were seen between the US and Cuba, allowing Cubans expats to visit home. But, in reality, free travel to/from the island nation has been off limits to the average American traveler.
Airways had the opportunity to travel to Cuba on a couple occasions, publishing stories such as “Flying Behind the Coconut Curtain.”
For many years, the sole U.S. airlines operating to Cuba were those whose airplanes were hijacked—a particularly frequent occurrence in the 1970s and early 1980s. But since then, regular flights to the island have been operated as charters; therefore, unofficial.
The Times They are-a-changin’
As diplomatic relations were restored in July 2015, both countries began to negotiate a new air transport agreement, which was signed on February 16 2016, by Secretary Anthony Foxx and the Cuban government, opening the way to resume scheduled air service between the two countries.
This new agreement facilitates visits for travelers that fall under one of 12 categories authorized by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that include family visits, government business, humanitarian projects, and journalistic, educational, or religious activities.
Under these new terms, each country’s airlines may operate up to 20 daily round-trip flights between the U.S. and Havana.
The arrangement also provides each country’s airlines with the opportunity to operate up to 10 daily round-trip flights between the U.S. and each of Cuba’s nine international airports, other than Havana, for a total of 90 daily flights.
These scheduled flights complement the existing charter routes, which now will likely face a up-scaling competition in terms of fares and service.
A few weeks after the new arrangement, nine American carriers have filed applications with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), seeking the approval of regular flights to Cuba, with capital city Havana as the most coveted destination.
Earlier this summer, the DOT cleared six American carriers, including JetBlue, to start flying regularly to Cuba.
In addition, the DOT has finalized today its selection of eight U.S. airlines to begin scheduled flights to Havana as early as this fall.
The airlines receiving the Havana awards include Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and United Airlines, which will provide service to Havana from Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York, Orlando, and Tampa.
So far, Silver Airways has received clearance from the Cuban government to operate scheduled service from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Camaguey, Cienfuegos, and Holguin. It is still awaiting approval for services from Fort Lauderdale to Santiago de Cuba, Cayo Coco, Varadero, Cayo Largo, and Manzanillo by year’s end.
Frontier, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines have also been awarded by the DOT for routes outside Havana, but have not yet announced when these carriers will begin service.
American, which will launch its first scheduled flight from Miami to the Cuban cities of Cienfuegos and Holguin on September 7, is also in the final steps to obtain the required permits for its operations on the island.
After today’s inaugural flight, JetBlue will be starting service to Camaguey and Holguin in November.
“The revival of regular direct flights is a positive step and a contribution to the process of improving relations between the two countries,” Cuban Transportation Vice Minister Eduardo Rodríguez told reporters during a press conference in Havana on Monday, August 29 2016.
Keep Blue, and Carry on — Onboard the first Flight
Two days later, JetBlue launched the first scheduled service between the US and Cuba. An event that had to be witnessed.
Having the opportunity to be on such a historic event is quite unique. As soon as the airline opened up bookings for its inaugural Fort Lauderdale (FLL) – Santa Clara (SNU) flight, I went ahead and booked a same-day round-trip ticket through the airline’s user friendly website.
In a matter of minutes, a confirmation email arrived in my inbox. For $244 (taxes included), I was set to mark history with JetBlue.
The day before the trip, a mobile notification invited me to check-in—not ultimately possible because our “special” flight requested passport and a certain visa verification.
The next morning, I arrived at FLL’s Terminal 3 two hours before Scheduled Departure Time. As soon as I entered the crowded terminal, balloons and a festive environment directed me to a special area where Santa Clara-bound passengers had to check-in.
JetBlue’s Staff, all wearing small Cuban flags on their uniforms, were ecstatic, singing, smiling, dancing. They knew they were part of an event that had no precedent.
— Philip Stewart (@PhilipStewartNY) August 31, 2016
As my passport was checked, and boarding pass was rapidly handed, the smiling agent invited me to go through security and witness the live music fiesta that was well underway.
Flight Display Screens showed, for the first time, Santa Clara as a destination.
At the very end of the concourse, hundreds of people danced to the notes of a typical Cuban ensemble.
— Airways Magazine (@airwaysmagazine) August 31, 2016
Food and drinks were available for anyone in the terminal, and a true sense of happiness and joy could be felt.
A special Cuban cake (with flags and Santa Clara titles), along with a Cohiba-made pastry and a Cuban Sombrero, adorned the gate where people mingled wearing “JetBlue Cuba” T-Shirts and photographing the 150+ excited passengers who eagerly awaited to board the flight.
According to a JetBlue agent, “At least 50% of all passengers on today’s flights are either Cuban descendant or are affectionately related to Cuba, so this is a very important day for them.”
And not only passengers were related to Cuba. All crew, including pilots and flight attendants, were Cuban descendants as well.
— Philip Stewart (@PhilipStewartNY) August 31, 2016
Captain Mark Luaces, whose parents came to the United States as teenagers, was clrearly emotional before boarding his aircraft. Luaces’ father was an aircraft mechanic for Eastern Air Lines.
First Officer Francisco Barreras came from Cuba in 1961. His great uncle was the general manager of Pan American World Airways in Havana, and had a major role in the Peter Pan operation, which provided air transportation to the U.S. for Cuban children. Interestingly, one of Barrera’s relatives was a pilot for the Castros.
After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx declared, “Today’s actions are the result of months of work by airlines, cities, the U.S. government, and many others toward delivering on President Obama’s promise to reengage with Cuba.”
“Transportation has a unique role in this historic initiative and we look forward to the benefits these new services will provide to those eligible for Cuba travel,” he said.
Minutes later, at 09:05 boarding begun. The gate crowded up with media and JetBlue staff photographing and rooting for passengers as they walked into the jetway—one of the most exciting moments I’d witnessed at any aviation event, ever.
Once inside the plane, every seat was adorned with special-made Gift Bags, which contained a gorgeous Cuban Cuisine book, along with snacks and Santa Clara maps.
Our Cuban crew invited passengers to settle quickly, as we were a few minutes behind schedule and an official welcoming party awaited in Santa Clara.
At 09:53, our Airbus A320 (N834JB / Keep Blue, and Carry on / MSN 5782) pushed back from the gate. Two helicopters hovered on top of the airport and recorded our aircraft as it taxied away, next to a large crowd of JetBlue/FLL Airport staff holding Cuban and USA flags, before being blessed with the traditional water cannon salute.
— Airways Magazine (@airwaysmagazine) August 31, 2016
At 10:05, the aircraft rocketed out of FLL’s southern runway. Our flight to SNU would take 53 minutes.
The first flight to Cuba getting a water cannon salute from @FLLFlyer just before departure.
— Jason Rabinowitz (@AirlineFlyer) August 31, 2016
According to the Pilots, we settled at FL270 over Marathon, in the Florida Keys, for a short cruise time before descending into Cuba.
— AirwaysLive (@airwayslive) August 31, 2016
Even though the flight was slightly turbulent, many passengers stood up and tried to take as many photos as they could.
Flight Attendants delivered a quick beverage service and the traditional JetBlue award “bingo”, where three passengers are given $500 and $1,500 vouchers to travel on later dates.
JetBlue’s President and CEO, Robin Hayes, delivered a few words thanking all passengers for their support, and acknowledging his crew for performing an impeccable service on this special occasion.
As the coast started to loom on the horizon, the rural landscape reminds how the country—one of the most prosperous until the beginning of the Cuban Revolution—turned into a large time capsule. Vast open fields, with very little population or sights of buildings or urban developments were the norm during our approach into Santa Clara.
Our landing was smooth, although the uneven runway made the way into the terminal slightly bumpy. At 10:55 we vacated the apron and parked next to the small terminal, after being welcomed with yet another water cannon salute.
Press members were invited to disembark via the aft door, whereas the rest of the passengers went through the front once all press was ready to capture the memorable moment.
Welcome to Cuba, JetBlue!
The event organized by the Cuban authorities was modest, yet very efficient. Media and JetBlue staff were invited to gather at the VIP Lounge after passing through security.
At the lounge, Robin Hayes delivered a few remarks.
“I’m so proud to finally land in this airport,” he said. “This is the very first commercial flight between the US and Cuba in over 50 years, and it’s all possible thanks to the hard work of many people.”
However, JetBlue isn’t that new to Cuba, after all. The airline had been operating charter flights since 2011. “We’ve been coming to Cuba for five years now. We know this market, and we know it has a big potential for us,” the CEO said.
Hayes also stressed how this wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Secretary Foxx and the US Government. “This is testament of his vision to reopen commercial services between the two countries.”
The airline’s CEO noted how Cuba has been the most talked about destination for a very long time at the airline’s headquarters. “We are excited about it and our focus is to be the best airline offering services to this island,” he said.
Hayes then pointed out how JetBlue will offer the lowest fares to/from Cuba, and will make bookings easier. “We will offer our clients an experience that’s second to none. We need to build a strong and lasting relationship with Cuban aviation authorities.”
According to the airline, additional services to Camaguey and Holguin will begin shortly, and Havana following thereafter. “We can’t wait to see our planes landing in Havana!,” said an excited Hayes.
The ‘Beginning of the End’ for the Embargo? Not Yet
Despite the diplomatic progress, and the normalization of scheduled air service between the United States and Cuba, the embargo is far from over.
During the press conference in Santa Clara, Cuban authorities noted how the there is still a travel ban for Americans visiting the island.
JetBlue’s Cuban Purser, Ariel, also delivered a speech on the return flight to FLL, noting how “hard is for a Cuban to leave home behind, and that hopefully these flights will reunite many people who’ve been separated for so long.”
“This is the beginning of something big,” said Carlos Collazo, a Cuban-born 75-year-old, who bought his ticket as soon as they were available. “I had to come on the first flight. This is home,” he said.
These flights to Cuba are not only opening up a new horizon for the isolated island, but also allowing Cuban people to re-connect with their families, who’ve been living in the exile for so long, and foster the country’s economy which is highly dependent on tourism income.