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U.S. Commercial Travel to Cuba Restarts

The first commercial flight between the United States and Cuba in more than a half century landed in the central city of Santa Clara on Wednesday morning, 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.

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 in a statement that carriers will serve the Cuban capital from Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York City, Orlando and Tampa.

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.

Cuban officials insist the continuing U.S. ban on tourism will limit the impact of commercial flights to Cuba, but some experts believe the drastic reduction in the difficulty of flying to Cuba could turn the surge in U.S. visitors into a tidal wave. Americans are allowed to visit the island on “people-to-people” cultural and educational visits, among other reasons.

Americans who fit one of 12 categories will now be able to fill out a federal affidavit by clicking a box on an online form and, in many cases, buy their Cuban tourist visa near the check-in counters of U.S. airports. Within weeks, Americans will be able to fly direct from cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis, Miami and Fort Lauderdale to eight Cuban cities and two beach resorts.

The restart of commercial travel between the two countries is one of the most important steps in President Barack Obama’s two-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.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes both addressed passengers on board the 150-seat Airbus A320, which was staffed by a specially selected five-member crew of Cuban-Americans. Airline executives changed from American business attire into loose-fitting Cuban-style guayabera shirts before landing.

“This is one of the most visible examples of the president’s activities to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba,” Foxx said.

“It’s a positive step and a concrete contribution to the process of improving relations between the two countries,” Cuba’s vice minister of transportation Eduardo Rodriguez told journalists Monday.