FT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) – Hola Santa Clara.
JetBlue made history Wednesday morning with the first commercial flight to Cuba in more than 50 years.
Flight 387 took off from Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport just after 10 a.m. bound for Santa Clara. In the cockpit of the Airbus A320 were two Cuban-American pilots.
“The fact that this airport is the first airport in the country that is able to host this inaugural flight is a pretty incredible thing. One, it’s great for Cuba because it will help their local economy. And it’s wonderful for our local economy, as well. To finally have an open Cuba and to have a flight that goes there from here,” said Broward Mayor Marty Kiar.
JetBlue brought out all the bells and whistles – a Cuban band, Cuban food and a water canon salute as the plane ferried down the runway.
Passengers for the packed flight arrived hours before departure, excited about the trip.
Traveller Erik Diaz gets to see his wife and two kids for the first time since arriving in the states years ago.
“This is my first time. I’ve never been back to Cuba since I left eight years ago. Normally international flights are like four hours and you need to do all the paperwork, this particular circumstance is different, it’s the first flight, my first flight, the first commercial flight, so I wanna be there early,” said Diaz who showed up more than three hours early.
Traveller Dominic Santana has never been to the island since he left at age six back in 1968.
“Very emotional. After so many years to going back home to where you were born and you don’t even know the country,” said Santana.
JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said the last time U.S. commercial air travel was available to Cuba, it was expensive and travelers had to fly in prop planes. Today, that has changed.
“We were formed 16 years ago with the mission of inspiring humanity and desire to connect families and bring them together again. We want to make travel between the U.S. and Cuba much more affordable than its ever been,” said JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes. “We’re also making it easier for customers with the ability to have a free checked bag. We’re offering tourist visas right here at the airport and also make signing the affidavit easy online.”
“Today is one of those days where the smile on your face is going to break your face. You just cannot stop smiling from the fact that we are actually flying to Cuba for the first time in many of our lifetimes. Growing up in South Florida as I did, Cuba was always this mysterious island that was so close to us yet could have been Mars because we couldn’t go. We couldn’t visit and see the beauty of that island and today we can actually travel to the island of Cuba and experience what they have to offer,” said Stacy Ritter, CEO of the Greater Ft. Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau shortly before a ceremonial ribbon cutting to begin the flight service.
For now, JetBlue will only have flights to Santa Clara which last just under an hour and a half. Flights will run Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and cost $99 one-way. Daily flights to Santa Clara are expected to start on October 1st.
JetBlue will begin service to two other Cuban airports; Camagüey-Ignacio Agramonte Airport and Holguín-Frank País Airport in November.
American Airlines will begin commercial service to Cuba from Miami International Airport on September 7th. Silver Airways will begin its regularly scheduled service to Cuba beginning with flights to Santa Clara on September 1st.
But before you book a flight to Cuba, remember that Congress has not lifted a trade embargo that prohibits U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba as tourists.
The Obama administration has approved 12 categories of exceptions to the ban ranging from cultural, religious and educational travel to business and visiting family.
That means JetBlue’s initial flights will mainly carry Cuban-Americans visiting relatives or other U.S. citizens interested in seeing cultural sites.
Travelers also must contact the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., to find out which visa they will need. JetBlue will offer Cuban tourist visas for purchase at its gates before each flight.
Click here to read more about U.S.- Cuba Relations.