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First U.S.-Cuba commercial flight in more than 50 years touches down

Passengers wave Cuban flags during JetBlue's inaugural commercial flight to Cuba on Wednesday.
Passengers wave Cuban flags during JetBlue’s inaugural commercial flight to Cuba on Wednesday.
(Donald Traill / Associated Press Images for JetBlue)

The first commercial flight between the United States and Cuba in more than half a century landed in the central city of Santa Clara on Wednesday, re-establishing regular air service severed at the height of the Cold War.

Cheers broke out in the cabin of JetBlue flight 387 as the plane touched down. Passengers — mostly airline executives, U.S. government officials and journalists, with a sprinkling of Cuban American families and U.S. travelers — were given gift bags with Cuban cookbooks, commemorative luggage tags and Cuban flags, which they were encouraged to wave.

The arrival opens a new era of U.S.-Cuba travel with about 300 flights a week connecting the U.S. with an island cut off from most Americans by the 55-year-old trade embargo on Cuba and formal ban on U.S. citizens engaging in tourism on the island.

“Seeing the American airlines landing routinely around the island will drive a sense of openness, integration and normality. That has a huge psychological impact,” said Richard Feinberg, author of the book “Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy.”

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Also Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the carriers selected to operate routes to Havana: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines.

The department said carriers will serve the Cuban capital from Los Angeles; Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Houston; Newark, N.J.; New York City; and the Florida cities of Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.

Airlines are obligated to begin flights within 90 days — right after Thanksgiving — but may begin earlier. Delta said it would launch daily service Dec. 1 from Atlanta, Miami and New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, “subject to Cuban regulatory approval,” with flights going on sale Sept. 10.

The restart of commercial travel between the two countries is one of the most important steps in President Obama’s 2-year-old policy of normalizing relations with the island. Historians disagree on the exact date of the last commercial flight but it appears to have been after Cuba banned incoming flights during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

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