KEY WEST (FKNB) — A small travel group departed Key West International Airport Monday on the first legally sanctioned commercial passenger flight from the island city to Havana, Cuba, in more than half a century.

“This is the first commercial flight from Key West to Cuba in 54 years,” said Monroe County Director of Airports Peter Horton. “Even though it’s billed as a private charter, it is still technically a commercial flight — and it’s the first we’ve had since 1960.”

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Five passengers are to remain in Cuba until a return flight Jan. 3, participating in a people-to-people cultural exchange that includes visiting botanical gardens, organic farms and other sites conducive to cultural exchange.

The trip was coordinated by the Florida Keys Tropical Research Ecological Exchange Institute, a non-profit organization that promotes better quality of life through an understanding of plants and ecosystems around the world.

“We’re doing some really meaningful things there, working with botanical gardens, scientists, researchers, all the people there to help preserve their environment and ecology,” said the institute’s Carolann Sharkey, who helped to organize and participated in the trip.

Also traveling on the chartered nine-passenger Cessna Conquest II was Key West Mayor Craig Cates, who made the historic flight on a ceremonial basis but returned home Monday afternoon.

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“We’re 90 miles away from Cuba. We’re closer to Cuba than Miami {and} we haven’t had flights over there in 50 years,” said Cates, who recalled vacationing in Cuba with his family before the country’s ties with the United States were severed. “It’s going to be great for the city of Key West.”

Key West and Cuba share a unique aviation heritage. Monday’s flight occurred slightly more than 100 years after Domingo Rosillo del Toro became the first pilot to accomplish the open-water crossing between the two islands.

Seven years later, a fledgling Key West airline launched the United States’ first scheduled international airmail and passenger service. In 1927, the island was the birthplace of Pan American Airways.

Key West was granted port of entry status for Cuba from U.S. federal authorities in October 2011. Since then, representatives from several charter firms have said they plan to establish periodic flights to Havana, but their plans have yet to materialize.

Stringent travel restrictions for U.S. citizens from America to Cuba remain, with the exception of special circumstances including cultural exchanges. Travel permits to Cuba are issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

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Source: The Florida Keys News Bureau