Who would really want to go to Cuba? And once Americans are there, how will they be treated?
The flight from Fort Lauderdale to this city in central Cuba on Wednesday morning took only 51 minutes, but it represented a major step in ending decades of isolation between communist Cuba and the United States.
JetBlue Flight 387 was the first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the Cold War foes in 55 years, the latest example of how the two countries are normalizing relations. Nine other U.S. airlines will soon follow with their own routes, which could balloon up to 110 flights per day from cities throughout the U.S. to Cuban cities.
A ceremonial water cannon salute showered the Airbus 320 jetliner before it departed Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. And Cuban dignitaries atAbel Santamaría Airport greeted the flight when it landed.
“The last time there were scheduled flights to Cuba, if you wanted to buy a ticket, you had to go to a ticket office. You’d fly to Cuba on a propeller plane,” said JetBlue CEORobin Hayes before the flight departed. “So it just shows how in 55 years things have changed.”
After landing in Santa Clara and receiving another ceremonial water canon shower from Cuban fire engines, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx was the first to disembark. He was greeted by an airport full of curious onlookers and airport workers holding American and Cuban flags.
Hayes presented Cuban officials with a model airplane and a city official presented him with a painting of Santa Clara. They shared a toast to future flights — with white wine instead of champagne — and thanked each other for the months of work to re-establish the flights.
“This is just the beginning,” Hayes said. “I look forward to growing our service here in the years to come.”
The Fort Lauderdale terminal outside Gate F10 resembled more of a party than a regular flight. A salsa band played as passengers munched on Cuban pastries.
José Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban ambassador to the U.S., said reaching this point required months of negotiations between U.S. transportation and security officials and their counterparts in Cuba.
“Today is another historic day,” he said. “And we have been saying that phrase many times during the last months.”
President Obama opened the door to Cuba in December 2014, when he and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced that the longtime foes would re-establish diplomatic relations. Much has changed since then, with officials re-opening embassies in Washington and Havana, and U.S. businesses signing new deals with Cuba.