BY CHABELI HERRARA
FORT LAUDERDALE – To a fanfare of Cuban music and a water canon salute, the first commercial flight to cross the Florida Straits to Cuba in decades took off Wednesday morning, ushering in a new era in the ever-warming relations between the U.S. and the island nation.
The sold-out trip to the central Cuban area of Santa Clara took off from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport just after 10 a.m. on JetBlue, the first airline to secure a commercial flight to Cuba. Flights on Silver Airways and American Airlines will follow in the coming weeks.
“Today is one of those days when the smile on your face can break your face — because we are finally going to Cuba,” said Stacy Ritter, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors bureau, to hundreds of assembled media and JetBlue personnel.
Pastelitos, Cuban sandwiches, croquettes and even a cake in the shape of a cigar box were on hand to send off the 160-seat flight, a moment defined historic by Cuba’s Ambassador to the U.S., Jose Cabañas. Two firetrucks sprayed ceremonial water canons as the jet rolled onto the runway.
JetBlue was wheels down in Santa Clara’s Abel Santamaria Airport, located three hours east of Havana, just after 11 a.m. Wednesday and welcomed by a group of dignitaries.
JetBlue will begin to operate Monday, Wednesday and Friday flights from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport before daily service begins on Oct 1. JetBlue will also fly daily to Camagüey starting Nov. 3 and Holguín beginning Nov. 10 from Fort Lauderdale.
Others to follow
American Airlines is offering flights to Cuba from Miami International Airport to Cienfuegos, Holguín, Camagüey, Santa Clara and Varadero, with its inaugural flights to Cienfuegos and Holguín kicking off on Sept. 7. Its inaugural flight, the first commercial one from Miami to Cuba, will take 160 passengers.
Frontier, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines also have won DOT approval for routes outside Havana but have not yet announced when they will begin service.
Regional airline Silver Airways was to fly to Cuba for the first time on Sept. 1, with about 30 travelers, to Santa Clara from Fort Lauderdale.
Frontier, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines also have earned approval from the Department of Transportation for routes outside Havana but have not yet announced when they will begin service.
Americans can travel to Cuba under 12 categories of travel, which excludes travel for strictly tourism. Travelers will still need to obtain an entrance visa, the most common form of which is referred to as a tourist card or visa.
JetBlue said it will also sell visas upon check-in for about $50. Visas for business or media won’t be available at check-in.
JetBlue has also tentatively been awarded four daily flights between Havana and Fort Lauderdale, New York City and Orlando. Neither JetBlue nor American, which was awarded five daily flights to Havana, have announced what dates they will fly to the Cuban capital.