The first regular commercial flight from America to Cuba in more than 50 years has landed on the communist-ruled island.
JetBlue Flight 386 left Fort Lauderdale in southeastern Florida shortly after 10am with 150 passengers on board.
After less than an hour in the air, it arrived in central Cuba’s Santa Clara, 175 miles east of Havana.
The Airbus A320, packed with officials including JetBlue’s chief executive Robin Hayes and US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, touched down in what the Obama administration hopes will usher in an era of more routine travel to and from the country.
Regular travelers, including some of Cuban descent, occupied nearly half the seats on a route that may be a commercial challenge, at least initially.
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The first regular commercial flight from America to Cuba in more than 50 years has landed. Above, JetBlue Flight 386 departs for Cuba from Fort Lauderdale
Passengers board the JetBlue Airways flight, the first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the United States and Cuba in more than half a century
The flight is the first of dozens of daily trips connecting US cities to nine Cuban airports, many of them in or near tourism hotspots.
Regular air service was severed during the Cold War, and charter flights have been the only air links since.
‘It’s a new day for Cuba travelers and one we have thoughtfully prepared for. We are proud to usher in a new era of Cuba travel with affordable fares and great service,’ JetBlue’s executive vice president Marty St George said.
The Fort Lauderdale airport was in full party mode near Jet Blue’s departure area – a live salsa band blared Cuban favorites as passengers and bystanders broke into spontaneous dances.
There were cheers, applause and a sea of balloons as boarding for the historic flight got underway.
The flight is the first of dozens of daily trips connecting US cities to nine Cuban airports
Seth Miller, of New York, boards the Jetblue flight to Cuba at Fort Lauderdale National Airport
The plane was sent off with a water cannon salute, an aviation tradition in which aircraft pass under arcs of water before flying to their destinations for the first time.
Lázaro Chavez, a 49-year-old pharmacist who lives in Miami and returns frequently to his homeland, said before boarding the plane he was taking the flight for two reasons.
‘One, I am going to see my family. Two, I want to be on this historic flight.’
For some, there were also tears of joy.
‘I am so proud, so overcome with emotion,’ said Domingo Santana, 53, who left Cuba when he was just six years old.
Since then, he said: ‘I’ve never been in my country. I don’t know my country.’
He added: ‘It’s a great opportunity.’
A JetBlue plane departs for Cuba amidst water canons heralding the historic takeoff
US Secretary of State John Kerry marked the momentous occasion with a post on Twitter
Wednesday’s JetBlue flight was flown by Captain Mark Luaces and First Officer Francisco Barreras, both Americans of Cuban descent, the airline said.
Mark Gale, director of operations for the airport, said it was one of the ‘great moments in history,’ likening it to the moon landing or the fall of the Berlin Wall.
US Secretary of State John Kerry wrote on Twitter: ‘8/31/2016:The 1st US commercial flight to #Cuba since 1961, just over a year after raising the flag at US Embassy Havana. Another step fwd.’
THE HISTORY OF AIR TRAVEL BETWEEN THE US AND CUBA
The last regular commercial flight between the two countries took place in 1961, when air links fell victim to the Cold War.
Air travel between the United States and Cuba has been restricted to charter flights since 1979.
In February, Washington and Havana agreed in February to restore direct commercial flights.
It was one of several watershed changes initiated in December 2014, when US President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro announced a thaw after more than 50 years of hostility.
Diplomatic relations were restored in July 2015.
But Washington still bans Americans from visiting Cuba as tourists, but travel is permitted for 12 other categories, including cultural and educational exchange.
The renewed links are a ‘milestone’ in relations between the United States and Cuba, said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Regular flights ‘will allow more fluid movement of people, goods, information and ideas between two places that are very close geographically but distant politically,’ he said.
The airlines designated to fly to the nine Cuban airports — not including Havana — include American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines, according to the US Department of Transportation.
Flights will depart from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, slated to land in the Cuban cities Camaguey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguin, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.