After 55 Years, Flights to Cuba Resume

After 55 Years, Flights to Cuba Resume
Photo: Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images
JetBlue Flight 387 departs for Cuba from Fort Lauderdale National Airport.

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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"I travelled to Cuba back in 2004, via Cancun. Sadly, the Cuban people will still be a nation of beggars and prostitutes, notwithstanding U.S. tourism. It's just the nature of totalitarian regimes (a status American is rapidly approaching). It is still "illegal" for a regular Joe to visit Cuba, just because your government thinks it has the ability to tell you what you can do, where you can go and what you can do when you get there. I justifiably disregard laws that are unjust and unconstitutional. So did any number of other Americans, since I met and hung out with a couple of gals that lived about 20 miles north of my hometown. Caution: Do not travel to Cuba via Canada - go through Mexico or Nassau. As for not enriching the CASTO tyrants, that ship has already sailed. Every other nation in the world is already visiting Cuba, the Spaniards built the hotels and Canada built Jose Marti International Airport for the Cubans. Just in case you aren't already gone over the edge, the universal medium of exchange in Cuba is the U.S. Dollar. I couldn't even find a Peso to take home as a souvenir!" —August 31, 2016 14:36 PM
"Valid point Denis But I went last year and it was a great trip The people truly love Americans and are very nice and friendly anybody can go we went to participate in the Havana Marathon you can go for any exhibitio, sporting event, in support of Cuban People The Visa takes 5 minutes to fill out but the qualifying conditions for travel are very broad. BTW the Cigars, Coctktails, Rum, Coffee, culture is well worth visiting" —August 31, 2016 14:30 PM
"I have to say that I would NOT consider spending money in CUBA. In all good conscience, the country is run by the CASTRO tyrants and they get rich while the poor people starve. I hope that their lives improve due to this but I will not spend money that will go to those BASTARDS....I like my cigars from other countries just fine." —August 31, 2016 13:21 PM
"Do these flights have any restrictions with regard to who may travel to Cuba? For example, I have no ties or business interests to Cuba. Just a regular Joe. Can I book a flight to the island?" —August 31, 2016 12:58 PM