REUTERS - A JetBlue Airways Corp passenger jet landed in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara on Wednesday, becoming the first scheduled commercial passenger flight from the United States to the island in more than a half century.
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The arrival of the Airbus A320 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, opened another chapter in the Obama administration's efforts to improve ties and increase trade and travel with the former Cold War foe. The Obama administration hopes regular scheduled flights will usher in an era of more routine travel to and from the Communist-ruled island.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes, other officials and journalists were aboard the 150-seat plane. Regular travelers, including some of Cuban descent, occupied nearly half the seats on a route that may be a commercial challenge, at least initially.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted in a Twitter message that the flight took place just over a year after the raising of the flag at the reopened U.S. embassy in Havana. He called it "another step forward."
Cuba and the United States began normalizing relations in December 2014 after 18 months of secret talks and have since restored full diplomatic ties. The countries had been hostile for more than five decades, since Fidel Castro ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 revolution that steered the island on a communist course and made it a close ally of the Soviet Union.
Until Wednesday, passenger air links between Cuba and the United States were by chartered flights.
The flight landed in Santa Clara, a city with a population of about 200,000 that is known for its monument to revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Lzaro Chavez, a 49-year-old pharmacist who lives in Miami and returns frequently to his homeland, said before boarding that he was taking the flight for two reasons. "One, I am going to see my family. Two, I want to be on this historic flight."
Obama's opening to Cuba has included a landmark visit by him to the Caribbean island in March and a series of measures to increase commercial ties, but the U.S. president has been unable to persuade Congress to lift the longstanding embargo.
U.S. citizens are still prohibited from visiting as tourists, although there have long been exceptions to the ban, ranging from visiting family to business, cultural, religious and educational travel. The Obama administration has further eased the restrictions.
'Foot in the door'
Despite the travel limitations, U.S. airlines have rushed to start flights between the United States and Cuban cities - adding a lot of capacity and setting themselves up to lose money on the trips in the short run, said industry consultant Robert Mann.
"Most carriers look at international markets that have been restricted and are just opening up as an investment," Mann said. "You need to get your foot in the door."
Services on regional carrier Silver Airways and American Airlines Group Inc from the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area that is home to a large Cuban-American population, to Cuba's outlying provinces will be the next to start, in September. Three other carriers will follow.
Mann said the companies probably offered to fly to Cuban cities that are unfamiliar to many American travelers, so that U.S. officials would look favorably on their applications to fly to Havana.
A memorandum of understanding between Cuba and the United States will limit Havana flights to 20 round trips per day. U.S. officials have yet to announce a final decision on which companies will get those coveted routes.
"The Havana competition was one of the most over-subscribed competitions that I've been a part of," Foxx said in an interview before the plane took off. "I think that speaks to the interest on the part of the American people, and it also speaks to the level of commercial interest in the U.S. that exists."