In another milestone in improving air service between the United States and Cuba, an American Airlines 737 took off Monday morning on the first regularly scheduled flight between Miami and the Cuban capital in more than half a century.
The Havana-bound plane, which took to the air at 7:37 a.m. after a water cannon salute, carried 145 passengers. As they waited at the gate, AA treated the passengers to pastelitos, cupcakes emblazoned with the airline logo and coffee and placed straw hats on their heads as they boarded flight 17.
“It’s a monumental day of great historic relevance with Miami being the epicenter of the Cuban American community and American’s hub for the region,” said Ralph Lopez, AA’s vice president for its Miami hub. “We’re excited to live in these exciting times and serve Havana.”
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While the mood in Miami was celebratory, it was more somber on the flight’s arrival in Cuba where the nation is in the midst of nine days of mourning for former leader Fidel Castro, whose death was announced Friday. American postponed taking a group of U.S. travel agents on the flight. They had been scheduled for a familiarization tour of Havana.
The AA plane touched down in Havana at 8:25 a.m. as passengers applauded and then made a quick return trip to Miami International Airport.
Daniel Lewis, of Northborough, Massachusetts, and his wife Beth wanted to be on the first regularly scheduled flight from the United States to the Cuban capital since 1961. “We originally made reservations on the United flight from Newark to Havana, but then American slipped in this earlier flight, so we canceled the United flight and booked this one,” he said.
“This was a very purposeful trip. We wanted to be part of history and now [with Castro’s death] it has turned out to be an even more historic time,” said Lewis, an architect, as he sipped a café Cubano at the gate.
It is the couple’s first trip to Cuba. They have always been curious about the island. “Growing up in Florida during the missile crisis, we met a lot of Cubans,” Beth Lewis said. “When we were children, the island was closed.”
In contrast, Pedro Gamboa, a maintenance supervisor at a Las Vegas condominium, didn’t even know about the historic nature of the flight until he arrived at the American gate early Monday morning.
He had booked his flight just last Wednesday so he could make a surprise appearance at a family birthday in Havana. Now he finds himself arriving during the mourning period for Castro. But, he said, “That’s the way life is. Some are born and others die.”
American and several other airlines began flying regular routes to several Cuban cities outside the capital in late summer, but Monday’s flight was the first of the new Havana-bound service and the first of four daily flights American plans from Miami International Airport to Havana.
With the addition of the Havana route, American now flies to six Cuban cities. “It’s early in the process [of opening the Cuban market], but we like where we are and that we have the most service to Cuba,” said Howard Kass, American’s vice president of regulatory affairs.
The new flights are part of the Obama administration’s opening toward Cuba, but their future could be in jeopardy depending on President-elect Donald Trump’s Cuba policies. He has said he will unravel changes made by President Barack Obama unless Cuba makes political changes.
The American Airlines launch kicks off a week when there will be a flurry of inaugural flights from U.S. airports to Havana. In addition to American’s daily Miami-Havana flights, on Wednesday it is also adding service from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Havana.
JetBlue plans to start its twice-daily service from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Havana on Wednesday and from Orlando on Tuesday.
On Thursday, Spirit Airlines will begin service from Fort Lauderdale, Delta Air Lines will launch service from Miami, New York’s JFK and Atlanta to Havana and Frontier also will have its inaugural flight from Miami to Havana.
Southwest will begin offering twice-daily service from Fort Lauderdale to Havana on Dec. 12.