Haiti

American Airlines adds Cap-Haïtien flights from Miami

American Airlines Senior Vice President Art Torno, Haiti President Michel Joseph Martelly, Stephanie Villedrouin, with Haiti tourism, and Miami-Dade Commissioner Jean Monestime cut a ribbon to mark American Airlines becoming the first U.S.-based carrier to land at Haiti's newest airport in Cap Haitian on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014.
American Airlines Senior Vice President Art Torno, Haiti President Michel Joseph Martelly, Stephanie Villedrouin, with Haiti tourism, and Miami-Dade Commissioner Jean Monestime cut a ribbon to mark American Airlines becoming the first U.S.-based carrier to land at Haiti's newest airport in Cap Haitian on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

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.”

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.

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