First US passenger flight lands in Cuba in decades

Santa Clara, August 31

A JetBlue Airways Corp passenger jet landed in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara today, becoming the first scheduled commercial passenger flight from the United States to the island in more than a half century.

The arrival of the Airbus A320 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, opened another chapter in the Obama administration’s efforts to improve ties and increase trade and travel with the former Cold War foe.

The Obama administration hopes regular scheduled flights will usher in an era of more routine travel to and from the Communist-ruled island.

US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes, other officials and journalists were aboard the 150-seat plane.

Regular travellers, including some of Cuban descent, occupied nearly half the seats on a route that may be a commercial challenge, at least initially.

US Secretary of State John Kerry noted in a Twitter message that the flight took place just over a year after the raising of the flag at the reopened US embassy in Havana. He called it “another step forward.”

Cuba and the United States began normalising relations in December 2014 after 18 months of secret talks and have since restored full diplomatic ties.

The countries had been hostile for more than five decades, since Fidel Castro ousted US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 revolution that steered the island on a communist course and made it a close ally of the Soviet Union.

Until today, passenger air links between Cuba and the United States were by chartered flights.

The flight landed in Santa Clara, a city with a population of about 200,000 that is known for its monument to revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Lázaro Chavez, a 49-year-old pharmacist who lives in Miami and returns frequently to his homeland, said before boarding that 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.”

Obama’s opening to Cuba has included a landmark visit by him to the Caribbean island in March and a series of measures to increase commercial ties, but the US president has been unable to persuade Congress to lift the longstanding embargo.

US citizens are still prohibited from visiting as tourists, although there have long been exceptions to the ban, ranging from visiting family to business, cultural, religious and educational travel.

The Obama administration has further eased the restrictions.