JetBlue Airways is poised to make history Wednesday at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport as the first carrier to launch regularly scheduled flights between the United States and Cuba in several decades. The New York-based airline’s first flight between Fort Lauderdale and Santa Clara, Cuba, is scheduled to take off at 9:45 a.m. after ceremonial festivities at Gate F7 to mark the occasion.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is expected to be among the dignitaries traveling on JetBlue’s inaugural flight, according to a Twitter post this week from @SecretaryFoxx. “Today, I’m excited to announce that I’ll be on the first scheduled commercial flight in more than half a century. #Cuba,” Foxx wrote in the post.
Piloting the historic JetBlue Flight 387 to Santa Clara will be Capt. Mark Luaces of Miami, whose parents were born in Cuba, according to JetBlue. Luaces’ father was an aircraft mechanic for Eastern Airlines. First Officer Francesco Barreras’ parents migrated to the United States from Cuba in 1961. JetBlue Airways is among eight US carriers to receive tentative DOT approval to operate flights from the United States to Havana, Cuba.
The Fort Lauderdale-to-Santa Clara route will operate with 150-seat Airbus A320 aircraft and initially run three times a week until Oct. 1 when it becomes once-daily service, JetBlue said. The first flight is expected to arrive in Cuba at 10:57 a.m., according to JetBlue. Returning, it would leave Santa Clara at 1:15 p.m. for arrival in Fort Lauderdale at 3:35 p.m.
Located in the Villa Clara province in central Cuba, Santa Clara is home to more than 200,000 people and offers a rich revolutionary and cultural history. It’s home to a monument honoring revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, as well as one of the oldest universities in Cuba, Las Villas Central University. In addition to Santa Clara, JetBlue is also planning to offer once-daily nonstop service between Fort Lauderdale and Camaguey and Holguin starting Nov. 3 and Nov. 10, respectively, pending final Cuban government approval.
Camaguey and Holguín, which are home to approximately 300,000 people each, feature Colonial architecture, parks and plazas, according to JetBlue. Introductory airfare for the first three new commercial Cuba routes have started at $99 one-way, and include one free checked bag and Cuban government required health insurance, JetBlue said. It’s also offering the Cuban Tourist Visas or tourist cards for purchase at its departure Cuba airports for $50 per person.
JetBlue has said its new Cuba flights will be a more affordable alternative to the pricier charter services that have existed prior to the resumption of commercial passenger flights between the two countries. “It’s a new day for Cuba travelers and one we have thoughtfully prepared for,” said Marty St. George, JetBlue’s executive vice president commercial and planning, in a July statement announcing launch dates for the Cuba routes. “We are proud to usher in a new era of Cuba travel with affordable fares and great service.”
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood officials are excited to welcome the flight. “We are honored to partner with JetBlue as they launch this historic inaugural service to Cuba for Broward County residents and the South Florida community,” said Mark Gale, CEO/director of aviation for the Fort Lauderdale airport. “We are very pleased to be offering the region’s first regularly scheduled commercial flights to the island nation in more than half a century.”
JetBlue is the top carrier at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood with 23.9 percent of all passenger traffic this year through July, airport records show. The low-cost carrier was among eight U.S. airlines that won tentative approval from the Department of Transportation in July to offer nonstop service between Havana and 10 U.S. cities including Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
Prior to applying for rights to operate commercial flights between the United States and Cuba, JetBlue had leased its planes for charters to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and New York. Charter flights, however, are generally more expensive and cost about $400 round-trip and higher, and service frequently chaotic and lack many of the traditional supports of commercial aviation such as online booking and 24-hour customer service.
The United States and Cuba struck a deal in February to allow commercial flights to the island for the first time in five decades. A ban on leisure tourism to Cuba, however, remains as part of the U.S. trade embargo on the communist-led island imposed since the 1960s.
Today, travel to Cuba from the United States is limited to 12 approved categories, such as educational and religious activities, family visits and humanitarian projects, even after the Obama administration began easing restrictions for Americans to travel there in December 2014. About 161,000 U.S. leisure travelers visited Cuba in 2015, an increase of 77 percent from 2014, according to information compiled by JetBlue. That’s in addition to hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans visiting family there.
Travel specialists have said the start of commercial flights will make it much easier for those who fall into one of the authorized travel categories to visit Cuba. On Thursday, Silver Airways will be the second U.S. carrier to begin regularly scheduled flights between Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Santa Clara, Cuba, spokeswoman Misty Pinson confirmed Tuesday. Other new Cuba service on tap in coming weeks includes American Airlines’ planned launch of regular service from Miami International Airport to Cienfuegos and Holguin on Sept. 7.
Source: Sun Sentinel