Flights from Miami land in Cuba, bridging a 55-year gap

American Airlines flight lands in Cienfuegos, Cuba

After 55 years, American Airlines begins scheduled commercial service between Miami and Cuban cities of Cienfuegos and Holguín.
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After 55 years, American Airlines begins scheduled commercial service between Miami and Cuban cities of Cienfuegos and Holguín.

Cienfuegos, a city on the southern coast of the island, earned its place in the history books because it took off from Miami International Airport just minutes before the Holguín flight.

The flight landed in Cienfuegos early, at 11:10 a.m., to applause from passengers. The flight to Holguín followed.

Water cannons saluted the departure from MIA and landing in Cuba and pilots unfurled Cuban and American flags before takeoff and upon landing.

For Serafin Pérez, the flight provided an opportunity to deal with a family emergency. He was able to make arrangements to get to Cienfuegos within two days.

“Before it was impossibile to do this,” he said. “You needed a lot of time and money to book a flight. Now, I was able to get on the internet and just do it.

“For me, it’s a great opportunity, especially for a family emergency, to be able to go and come back,” Pérez said.

Wednesday marked a big day for not only for American but also for MIA. The airport has long been a major player in travel to and from the island, from tourism jaunts in the 1950s to serving as the destination for special refugee and political prisoner flights beginning in the 1960s and as the major gateway for charter flights to Cuba starting in the late 1970s.

When U.S.-Cuba relations unraveled in 1961, it also brought the end of scheduled commercial flights. The rapprochement with Cuba that began in December 2014 and a memorandum signed by Cuba and the United States in February paved the way for resumption of scheduled air service between the two countries.

American has a busy week ahead. It will also be launching new scheduled service to Santa Clara and Camagüey on Friday and Varadero on Sunday. There are welcome festivities planned when AA planes arrive in all five airports.

“This is historic for Cuba too,” said Galo Beltran, AA’s Cuba country manager.

When American adds service to Havana later this year, it will have 91 weekly flights to six Cuban cities. All except a daily flight from Charlotte, N.C. to Havana will depart from Miami.

“There is no other airline in the world that will have as many flights to Cuba,” said Martha Pantin, an American spokeswoman. About 50 companies fly to Cuba — some only seasonally.

But AA will be getting a bit of competition on its Miami routes. Frontier Airlines announced Wednesday that it plans to start its new Miami-Havana service on Dec. 1 with one-stop connections from Denver and Las Vegas. Delta Air Lines also has been approved for a daily Miami-Havana route but it hasn’t yet announced when it will begin its service.

American, which will be offering 12 daily flights from MIA to Cuba, wants to be the dominant airline in the Cuban market. But to do that, it will need to fill up its planes with travelers who may not be too familiar with Cuba beyond the capital.

To help sell the market, American has invited 58 travel agents on tours of all five of the new Cuban destinations it will begin serving this month. In Cienfuegos, which is known as La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South), 15 travel agents will be eating at a paladar (private restaurant), visiting the Tomás Terry Theater, the downtown area, a cigar factory and attending a choral performance by the Cantores de Cienfuegos.

The three-day itinerary also includes a side trip to Trinidad, a picturesque town that is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

People-to-people tours are one of 12 categories of travel that the U.S. government has approved for travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. No U.S. travelers will get on one of American’s new Cuba flights without certifying that they fall into one of the 12 categories and without getting a Cuba-ready stamp on their boarding passes, indicating their passports and visas are in order. That requirement means there are no mobile boarding passes or curbside check-in.

“We want the travel agents to learn about how to promote the destinations within the 12 categories,” said Pantin. “When you try to grow a destination, you need to promote the destination. This shows our commitment to making the [Cuban] market a success.”

But not everyone is pleased with the resumption of scheduled commercial flights to Cuba.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez introduced a bill late Tuesday to stop the flights until there is a study reviewing security measures and equipment at Cuban airports. The legislation called the Cuban Airport Security Act would require a Government Accountability Office audit assessing security screening at each airport in Cuba. The same bill was introduced in the House in July.

In addition, the bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to establish a formal agreement with the Cuban government on the utilization of air marshals. The Transportation Security Administration has already said that the United States and Cuba have entered in an aviation security agreement that outlines the legal framework for deploying federal air marshals on certain flights to and from Cuba.

“With so many serious security threats around the world, it is irresponsible to leave key aspects of our airport security in the hands of the anti-American, repressive regime in Cuba,” said Rubio. “President Obama’s legacy should not come before the safety of the American people.”

The legislation also would prohibit airlines from working with any Cuban government entities in the recruitment, hiring and training of Cuban workers to serve their flights. American, for example, has trained some 200 Cuban workers to provide support for its Cuba flights but it has contracted them through various government agencies.

“I was extremely impressed with them during the training sessions,” said Beltran. “They are as sharp as our employees anywhere.”

But Rubio said if the airlines don’t directly recruit, hire and train their Cuban workers, it “increases the likelihood that someone on the inside seeking to harm the United States could gain access to sensitive flight data and controls.”