To the fanfare of a water-canon salute, JetBlue flight 387 lifted off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at 9:50 a.m. heading south toward Cuba. The Airbus 320 jetliner, filled to capacity with travelers, reporters, U.S. officials and flown by a pair of Cuban-American pilots, touched down a little more than 75 minutes later at a provincial airport in Santa Clara—completing the first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the two countries in more than half a century.
Among the estimated 150 passengers on board was U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who was scheduled to meet with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla as part of the Obama administration's strategy to call international attention to the history-making importance of flight. "Today we take another important step toward delivering on President Obama's promise to re-engage Cuba," Foxx stated in July when the Department of Transportation issued official approval for the flights that begin this week.
Supporters of normalized U.S. ties with Cuba are hailing the JetBlue flight, the first between Cuba and the United States since 1961, as a milestone in bilateral efforts to reconnect the two countries. "This is another historic step in normalizing commercial, cultural and family relations between the United States and Cuba," Collin Laverty, whose Cuban Educational Travel company has brought approximately 20,000 U.S. visitors to the island, told Cigar Aficionado.
Re-establishing direct commercial flights to the island is expected to dramatically increase the number of travelers from the U.S. Since December 17, 2014, when President Obama and President Raúl Castro simultaneously announced a breakthrough in relations, travel from the U.S. has risen by an estimated 80 percent. Last year, some 160,000 U.S. citizens traveled to the island, in addition to tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans who, under Obama, have been free to visit relatives since 2009. As competitive commercial air service replaces the cumbersome and expensive charter air services that have ferried passengers back and forth since the mid-1990s when President Clinton began loosening travel restrictions, analysts predict that the number of visitors from the U.S. will expand.
A Cold War-era travel ban to Cuba, however, continues to constrain normal tourism. Although President Obama has created a series of exemptions to circumvent the prohibition, it remains illegal to travel to Cuba for the purpose of a simple vacation. "The irony is that Cuba is the only country in the world where Americans can't freely travel," Cuban-American businessman Carlos Gutierrez, who served as U.S. secretary of commerce under George W. Bush, told the Miami Herald.
But advocates of normalized relations predict that the resumption of direct flights will bring renewed pressures on the Republican-controlled Congress to lift all travel restrictions once and for all. Carriers such as JetBlue, American Airlines, Delta and Southwest all have a financial incentive to lobby Congress to pass the the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act—the bill is sponsored by Jeff Flake (R-AZ)—and travelers themselves will become a political constituency for lifting all restrictions.
"The more that people are able to get on those flights and see the changes in Cuba, they'll see how antiquated the ban is," says Jodi Bond, vice president of the Americas division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is spearheading political lobbying efforts to lift the travel ban as well as the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
On September 1, another commuter airline, Silver Airways, will also initiate regular service from Fort Lauderdale; on September 7, American Airlines will begin flights to five different Cuban cities. Flights between the U.S. and Havana are yet to be approved, but that announcement is expected as soon as today. By the end of this year, 10 U.S. carriers are expected to be flying 110 daily routes from Miami, Philadelphia, New York and other U.S. cities to various destinations on the island.
Direct commercial air service is just "one step forward in a long process" of normalizing political and economic relations between Washington and Havana, according to Gutierrez. "Every step forward is one more step in making [rapprochement] irreversible. Even today it seems irreversible."
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