First commercial US-to-Cuba flight in 50+ years takes off

The JetBlue flight leaves for Cuba this morning, signifying the start of a new era between the countries after over half a century of cold war suspicion and isolation.

Desmond Boylan/AP/File
US tourists walks outside the Bodeguita del Medio Bar frequented by the late American novelist Ernest Hemingway in Old Havana, Cuba, May 24, 2015.

A new era in US-Cuba relations began Wednesday when the first commercial flight between the two countries in over half a century left the ground at 10:06 a.m.

The JetBlue flight from Florida's Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport will touch down in Santa Clara, Cuba, after an hourlong flight. While relations between the United States and Cuba are still complex and far from being entirely open, the beginning of commercial flights to the communist republic indicates that a major shift in relations between the countries is in the works, with important implications for both former enemies.

In 1959, Cuban communist revolutionaries seized control of the island. The United States responded with a trade embargo against the country in an attempt to weaken communist leadership of the country. Relations grew worse as the cold war went on, with the failed US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis the following year. Formal diplomatic relations between the two nations were nonexistent from 1961 until July of last year.

While the Obama administration has done a great deal to begin normalizing relations between the two countries, the president was unable to convince Congress to lift the embargo against Cuba. As a result, tourism to the country is still technically forbidden. But recent exceptions to the ban make it easier than ever to visit the island nation. These exceptions include 12 authorized forms of travel, including visits to relatives, educational trips, and professional meetings.

For airlines, the new allowances open up a world of financial possibility.

“Most carriers look at international markets that have been restricted and are just opening up as an investment,” airline industry consultant Robert Mann told TIME. “You need to get your foot in the door.”

JetBlue may be the first to make the flight to Cuba, but Silver Airways and American Airlines are next in line for flights beginning in September, with many more following later this year. 

With so many airlines jumping on the bandwagon, it might take a while for demand to catch up, but the new flights will be considerably more convenient for the consumer. Before the commercial airline approval, the only way to fly to Cuba from the US was to book a charter flight, which was more expensive, time consuming, and frequently meant relying on outdated equipment.

“Up to a year ago, we were doing reservations by fax machines,” Peter Sanchez, the chief executive of Cuba Tours and Travel, told The New York Times.

The first JetBlue flight includes all the pomp and circumstance one would expect of a historic flight. The plane will be saluted by water cannons before it takes off, the chief executive officer of JetBlue is expected to give a speech, and US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced on Tuesday that he would be on the flight, according to ABC.

The new demand for flights between Cuba and the US will have important implications for Cubans as well as tourists visiting under one or more of the 12 authorized forms of travel begin to pour onto the island.

"All that money goes into the pockets of Cuban families that are going to use those resources to expand their small businesses and improve their lives," Alberto Coll, Cuban-born lawyer and director of European and Latin American legal studies at DePaul University, told USA Today.

"Over time, that is going to help transform Cuban society in a more open, more pluralistic direction."

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