A 72-minute trip from Fort Lauderdale to central Cuba makes history

JetBlue flight leaves for Cuba

JetBlue Flight #387 departs Fort-Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport under water canon salute.
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JetBlue Flight #387 departs Fort-Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport under water canon salute.

A Utah mother and daughter wanted to experience history. Another woman was headed on a quick vacation at a favorable fare. And one man boarded JetBlue Flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Cuba, for an intensely personal reason: a reunion with children he had not seen for more than eight years.

These were among the 150 passengers Wednesday aboard the first commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba since 1961.

The sold-out, 72-minute flight to Abel Santamaria Airport, three hours east of Havana, took off about 9:45 a.m. On board were U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and about 75 journalists. Several other journalists, including one from the Miami Herald, were denied visa requests.

The Fort Lauderdale send-off celebration included pastelitos, Cuban sandwiches, croquettes and even a cake in the shape of a cigar box. Hundreds of journalists and JetBlue personnel packed into Gate F7 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to celebrate another step in the ever-warming relations between the two countries since President Barack Obama announced in December 2014 that the U.S. would re-establishment of ties with Cuba.

This is definitely one of the proudest moments in JetBlue’s history.

Robin Hayes, JetBlue CEO

As the Airbus A320 — named ‘Keep Blue and Carry On” — turned on the runway, two Broward firetrucks sprayed water cannons overhead. Piloting it were Captain Mark Luaces, raised in Miami to Cuban parents who came to the U.S. as teenagers, and First Officer Francisco Barreras, whose parents migrated to the U.S. the year commercial flights ceased.

Passengers played bingo and participated in raffles onboard. In Cuba, a large crowd lined up outside the airport to welcome travelers, said passengers who returned to Fort Lauderdale on the afternoon flight from Santa Clara.

“This is definitely one of the proudest moments in JetBlue’s history,” said JetBlue President and CEO Robin Hayes.

Commercial service by JetBlue and other airlines brings a simplified booking process and lower prices to transportation between the U.S. and Cuba. Since the late 1970s, the only way for fliers to travel to Cuba was via charter flights, which often required cash payment that cost about double JetBlue’s introductory fare of $210.

In the coming week, American Airlines and Silver Airways also will inaugurate scheduled flights to nine airports across the island. Those airlines also are offering fares about half charter fares.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation gave final approval to eight U.S. airlines to begin service on coveted routes to Havana. Those flights are expected to begin as early as this fall.

While commercial fares are friendlier than charter costs, commercial flights also come with tighter restrictions on baggage — a drawback for families taking provisions to those on the island.

$210 Round-trip cost of the inaugural Cuba flight, about half what charters cost

On JetBlue, passengers are limited to two checked bags of 70 pounds. The first is free, provided it weighs less than 50 pounds; the second costs $35. Weight over 50 pounds incurs an additional fee. Boxes, in which Cuban travelers generally took TV’s and laptops to family, won’t be allowed. Earlier this month, American Airlines also got pushback for its baggage policy, which allows up to five bags or boxes but with growing fees for each, and said it was revising its policy.

On commercial flights, as on charters, U.S. travelers to Cuba face more paperwork than on flights to most destinations, due to the U.S. embargo. Americans are not allowed to travel strictly for tourism and must verify that they fall into one of 12 approved categories, such as humanitarian or cultural travel. They also need to obtain an entrance visa prior to departure. JetBlue has included an affidavit form into the sign-up process so travelers and is selling visas at check-in for about $50. Visas for business purposes and media are not available at check-in.

But for most travelers on the inaugural flights, the benefits of commercial travel outweigh the lingering challenges. For Aleisis Barreda, that included the ability to pick her own seat and arrive at the airport just two hours in advance, instead of the three- to five hours needed with a charter. The cheaper fare means she can go to Cuba more often.

At Wednesday’s Fort Lauderdale festivities, Cuba’s Ambassador to the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas, called the moment “historic,” and sought to ease concerns about whether Cuba is ready to receive regular service from the U.S.

Cuban Ambassador to U.S. José Cabañas, third from left, cuts the blue ribbon to celebrate the first U.S.-Cuba commercial flight in more than five decades.

Nearly 4,800 charter flights flew into Cuba in 2015, Cabañas said, and 600 aircrafts fly into the 10 Cuban airports from 110 countries every day.

“The security and safety of these flights will not be an issue of concern,” he said. “Cuba is open to continuing the cooperation in this and other areas to provide better service to all its passengers.”

And, in a reference to the continuing U.S. embargo, Cabañas said it is Cuba’s hope that “all remaining obstacles that limit further exchange between our two countries will be removed.”

American Airlines and Silver Airways will begin service to Cuba in the next week.

Following the inaugural flight, JetBlue will operate service from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara on Monday, Wednesday and Friday until Oct. 1, when it begins daily service. JetBlue also will fly daily to Camagüey beginning Nov. 3 and to Holguín beginning Nov. 10.

American Airlines will fly from Miami International Airport to Cienfuegos, Holguín, Camagüey, Santa Clara and Varadero, beginning with flights to Cienfuegos and Holguín Sept. 7.

Regional airline Silver Airways will inaugurate service from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara Sept. 1, with about 30 travelers. The airline has secured Cuban approval to fly to Camagüey, Cienfuegos, and Holguín but is seeking approval for additional destinations.

Frontier, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines also have earned approval from the Department of Transportation for routes outside Havana but have not yet announced when they will begin service.

Historic moment

Among passengers on Wednesday’s flight were Salt Lake City mother-daughter duo Leanne and Natalie Spencer, who were spurred by the opportunity to make history. Rather than stay in Cuba, they returned to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday afternoon.

“We wanted to do something historical,” mom Leanne Spencer, a wedding planner in Salt Lake City, said.

The Spencers plan to visit the island on a longer Cuba-Haiti trip next year. But when they arrived in Cuba Wednesday, they said they were briefly questioned by airport officials in Santa Clara who asked why they were returning to the U.S. on the same day. A journalist also was taken aside by authorities and prevented from boarding the return flight to Fort Lauderdale, they said.

We wanted to do something historical.

Leanne Spencer, who traveled to Cuba with daughter Natalie from Salt Lake City just for the inaugural flight

Still for others on the flight, the appeal was emotional. Erik Oliva, a New Orleans-based Cuban father of two, left his children behind eight years ago.

He was unable to return until receiving a Cuban passport a few months ago. Wednesday was his first opportunity to see Ansel, and Erika, now 12 and 16.

While others joined in Wednesday’s fanfare, Oliva sat quietly on the sidelines. “Imagine, to see my kids after eight years,” he said.