A report by Frances Flores for The New York Times.
The first scheduled passenger jet service in history from the United States to Cuba took off Wednesday morning from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., another important step toward normalized relations between two former Cold War foes.
It has been so long since an airline in the United States flew a regularly scheduled flight to the island that the last time it happened, the passengers flew on a propeller plane.
JetBlue on Wednesday morning became the first American airline carrier to fly scheduled service to Cuba in more than 50 years. The 9:45 a.m. flight to Santa Clara took off amid live Cuban music, fresh guava pastries and a gaggle of reporters and dignitaries.
Erik Díaz Oliva, 41, choked back tears as he described the significance of flying on the first scheduled flight to his home country after eight years away.
“I got here at 5 a.m. and was the first to check in; everyone started to cheer!” Mr. Díaz said. “To the people who say these flights don’t help: Yes, it does help. It opens Cuba to the world.”
The scheduled air service was the latest in a string of important changes between the nations since President Obama decided in 2014 to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. Embassies were opened, direct mail service was restored and Carnival Cruise Line ships have sailed to Cuba.
Other moves, like ferry service and the building in Cuba of an American company’s tractor assembly plant, were authorized by the Obama administration, but were stalled by the Cuban government.
“Today opens the door to further exchange between the American people and the Cuban people,” Anthony Foxx, the United States transportation secretary, said in an interview. “We think that’s ultimately good for the expansion of freedom and democracy.”
Mr. Foxx was among the inaugural flight’s 150 passengers.
Six airlines have been approved for flights to nine Cuban cities, but not all of them have announced their schedules. Mr. Foxx said far more airlines had expressed interest in flying to Havana, the capital, than could be accommodated.
“I haven’t seen anything like it,” he said.
Calling it “good pressure,” Mr. Foxx acknowledged that Cuba would have to improve its airport infrastructure to be able to handle the increased flow of airlines. The country is notorious for poor airport facilities, and passengers often endure hourslong waits because baggage carousels or staircases for disembarking are tied up.
José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States, said the country’s 10 international airports were safe and secure. He added that the flight on Wednesday was yet another first for the two countries announced in the past few months.
“We hope that in the near future, all remaining obstacles that limit further exchange between the two countries will be removed,” he said.
For passengers, the difference will be immense. Until now, people flying to Cuba had to book charter flights, which meant passengers had to arrive at the airport four hours before takeoff and were charged steep fees for luggage. Prices were high, lines were long and flights were often hours late. The document review process was time-consuming, and passengers stood in separate lines to check in, check bags, have bags weighed and pay for the checked luggage.
“The last time I went to Cuba, I paid $300 or $400 just for the luggage — absurd!” said Yosleidys Rodríguez, 39, who left Cuba less than two years ago for South Florida. “This is the best thing that could have happened.”
Now customers who qualify under the 12 authorized categories approved for travel can book flights directly on an airline’s website, and many have paid fares as low as $99 each way.
JetBlue expects to have up to seven daily flights to Cuba, although most of them will go to cities other than Havana, like Holguín and Camagüey. They are set to begin in the fall.
Silver Airways, a commuter airline, on Thursday will begin offering three weekly flights to Santa Clara, and later this year will start flights to Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, Cayo Coco, Varadero, Cayo Largo and Manzanillo. American Airlines begins service on Sept. 7 to Cienfuegos and Holguín, and will expand to three more Cuban cities later in the year.
Frontier Airlines, Sun Country Airlines and Southwest Airlines have also been approved for flights.
The Department of Transportation is expected to announce on Wednesday afternoon which airlines will fly to Havana.
Although the number of Americans flying to Cuba has been steadily increasing, experts say it is unlikely that the market will be able to bear such an abundance of seats.
“There’s going to be a lot of seats on the market,” said Michael Zuccato of Cuba Travel Services, a charter company whose business is in peril now that consumers can book directly with airlines. “I do not believe the flights are going to be full.”
Marty St. George, the executive vice president of JetBlue, said the airline expected brisk business, particularly among Cubans visiting their families.
“We do think it’s an important part of history,” Mr. St. George said. “From a challenge perspective, we know the drill. Cuba has some unique elements because of 50 years of history between the U.S. and Cuba, but we’re ready to go.”
Photo by Gordon Gebert Jr.