History arrived at 11:42 a.m. — one hour and 44 minutes after takeoff from Miami International Airport and 62 years after the first stone was laid for Haiti’s second international airport.
On Thursday, after several presidents, a fallen dictatorship, a coup, de facto government and several foreign interventions later, Haiti finally realized the dream.
An American Airlines Boeing 737 carrying 150 passengers was the first major airliner to land in Cap-Haïtien after it circled the historic Haitian city twice. As it glided smoothly down the new 7,500-foot runway, there was thunderous applause from those aboard.
“This is so big,” Haitian President Michel Martelly said, “that I feel for Port-au-Prince. It’s like Port-au-Prince is losing some of the business.”
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Until Thursday, travelers to Haiti’s second-largest city and neighboring towns either had to take chartered service on smaller carriers from South Florida that were capable of landing on a short runway, or fly to Port-au-Prince. From there, they either paid for another flight aboard a small plane to Cap-Haïtien or traveled five to six hours by road.
Now, they can take a direct flight aboard American Airlines, which celebrated the airport’s renovation and new runway with its inaugural daily nonstop flight from Miami. Cap-Haïtien is now the airline’s 31st Caribbean city, said Art Torno, American’s vice president for Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America.
“Cap-Haïtien is a destination we’ve had our sights on for a very long time,” said Torno, pointing out that 30 percent to 35 percent of their travelers to Haiti are from the region.
And while it was a race to get the airport ready in time for Thursday, Torno congratulated Martelly and his government, saying, “they have really delivered a first-class airport.”
For Haiti, the airport isn't just a facility but an opportunity to open up a region of the country in hopes of spurring investment and tourism. In addition to American, other major U.S. carriers have expressed interest, officials said.
“It’s a giant step for Haiti,” said Martelly, who wore a purple T-shirt declaring that, “Cap-Haitien is Open for Business.”
“This is a project that started in 1952 under President [Paul] Magloire, but it was never finished.”
In the subsequent years, the airport was a victim of both misfortune and political paralysis. It was rehabilitated in 1992 under the de facto government but a damaged runway — one part was higher than the other — meant that large aircraft could not land. In 2004, during a bloody coup that forced the departure of then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile, the airport was burned down.
In 2009, then President René Préval took out a loan for up to $33 million from Venezuela’s Economic and Social Development Bank.
“In 2014, finally we have our second international airport,” Martelly said.
And for Haiti's approximate 4 million diaspora, the majority of whom Martelly said hail from the north of the country, it is a life-changing moment.
“We now have ours,” said passenger Lucie Lamour, who traveled for the first time in seven years to Haiti because of the direct service.
Her traveling companion: son Webner Lamour, who recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. She brought him along, she said, so he “could see the country.”
They weren't the only ones who came to see the country. Several well-known Haitian Americans — including former North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre and his wife, Bernadette; Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jean Monestime; and physicians J.P. Austin and Rudy Moise — also came and decided to make a weekend out of it.
“I want to visit places,” Moise said. “The Citadelle, San Souci, the beach; I want to cruise around town and feel the city.”
“When you think of the economic impact, it’s going to be huge; starting today,” Martelly said.