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First US commercial flight in decades lands in Cuba

AFP | HECTOR VELASCO WITH LEILA MACOR
Published : Sep 1, 2016, 4:37 am IST
Updated : Sep 1, 2016, 4:37 am IST

The first regular commercial flight in more than 50 years from the United States landed in Cuba on Wednesday, as the two nations took the latest step in their efforts to boost ties.

Ting Xue
 Ting Xue

The first regular commercial flight in more than 50 years from the United States landed in Cuba on Wednesday, as the two nations took the latest step in their efforts to boost ties.

JetBlue Flight 386 landed in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara a little before 11:00 am, about an hour after leaving Fort Lauderdale in southeastern Florida with 150 passengers on board.

The first two passengers off the plane carried US and Cuban flags as they descended the stairs onto the tarmac, where they symbolically exchanged the banners in a sign of friendship. The flight was the first of 110 expected daily trips connecting US cities to airports in the Communist-run island, many of them in or near tourism hotspots.

Regular air service was severed during the Cold War, and charter flights have been the only air links since. US secretary of state John Kerry hailed the watershed.

“The 1st US commercial flight to #Cuba since 1961, just over a year after raising the flag at US Embassy Havana. Another step fwd,” he wrote on Twitter.

US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx, who was on the JetBlue flight, has plans to meet with local officials, Cuba’s transport ministry said.

The Fort Lauderdale airport was in full party mode near Jet Blue’s departure area — a live salsa band blared Cuban favourites as passengers and bystanders broke into spontaneous dances. There were cheers, applause and a sea of balloons as boarding for the historic flight got underway.

For some, there were also tears of joy.

“I am so proud, so overcome with emotion,” said Domingo Santana, 53, who left Cuba when he was just six years old.

Since then, he said, “I’ve never been in my country. I don’t know my country,” adding: “It’s a great opportunity.”

Wednesday’s JetBlue flight was flown by Captain Mark Luaces and First Officer Francisco Barreras, both Americans of Cuban descent, the airline said.

The plane was sent off with a water cannon salute, an aviation tradition in which aircraft pass under arcs of water before flying to their destinations for the first time.

Mark Gale, director of operations for the airport, said it was one of the “great moments in history,” likening it to the moon landing or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Another passenger, Aleisy Barreda, 46, was overcome with emotion.

“This reopening has really benefitted us,” she gushed.

Location: Cuba, Villa Clara, Santa Clara