SANTA CLARA, Cuba – The first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the United States and Cuba since 1961 landed on Wednesday at this central city’s Abel Santamaria airport at 10:57 a.m. local time (1457 GMT).
JetBlue Flight 387 took off at 10:06 a.m. local time from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with tourists, journalists and U.S. authorities, including Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, on board, an event broadcast live by U.S. English- and Spanish-language media.
The 220-seat Airbus A320’s arrival in Cuba marks a new milestone in the diplomatic thaw between the former Cold War enemies, which in December 2014 announced the start of the process of normalizing relations.
Foxx told members of the media, including EFE, on board the plane that the flight was a tangible example of the Obama administration’s efforts to mend decades of animosity.
The plane landed in Santa Clara ahead of schedule despite a 20-minute delay in Fort Lauderdale and, just as occurred at take-off, was greeted with a ceremonial water cannon salute.
Foxx was the first person off the aircraft and was welcomed at the bottom of the steps by Cuba’s deputy transportation minister, Eduardo Rodriguez.
The U.S. official is scheduled to board a second flight for Havana, where he will meet with Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, and transportation minister, Adel Yzquierdo.
Cuba’s ambassador to the United States, Jose Ramon Cabañas, said after taking part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony with JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes amid a festive atmosphere at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport that the resumption of commercial flights between the two countries was “historic.”
He recalled in his remarks to reporters that the bilateral agreement was signed just months ago – in February – but that all sides involved had worked efficiently to make the flights a reality, adding that they would “benefit everyone.”
Mirtha Rodriguez, a Cuban woman who has settled in the United States and was one of the 150 passengers on board the flight, told EFE prior to take-off that neither she nor her family wanted to miss this historic occasion.
Like other passengers, she had traveled to Cuba on charter flights but said the commercial service was cheaper and also more convenient because of the option of making reservations online.
Wednesday’s direct flight to Cuba was the first of 110 daily round-trip flights authorized this year by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which also gave American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines permission to provide service to nine cities on the Communist-ruled island.
No flights to Havana were authorized because the amount of requests exceeded the number of slots agreed by the two governments.
American citizens may travel to Cuba if their trip falls under one of 12 U.S. government-authorized categories, including family visits and those related to cultural, journalistic and professional activities.
But tourist visits to the Caribbean island by American citizens are still prohibited under the 54-year-old U.S. economic embargo on the island, which only Congress can lift.