SANTA CLARA, Cuba — The flight from Fort Lauderdale to this city in central Cuba on Wednesday morning took only 51 minutes, but it represented a major step in ending decades of isolation between communist Cuba and the United States.
JetBlue Flight 387 was the first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the Cold War foes in 55 years, the latest example of how the two countries are normalizing relations. Nine other U.S. airlines will soon follow with their own routes, which could balloon up to 110 flights per day from cities throughout the U.S. to Cuban cities.
A ceremonial water cannon salute showered the Airbus 320 jetliner before it departed Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. And Cuban dignitaries at Abel Santamaría Airport greeted the flight when it landed.
“The last time there were scheduled flights to Cuba, if you wanted to buy a ticket, you had to go to a ticket office. You’d fly to Cuba on a propeller plane,” said JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes before the flight departed. “So it just shows how in 55 years things have changed.”
After landing in Santa Clara and receiving another ceremonial water canon shower from Cuban fire engines, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx was the first to disembark. He was greeted by an airport full of curious onlookers and airport workers holding American and Cuban flags.
Hayes presented Cuban officials with a model airplane and a city official presented him with a painting of Santa Clara. They shared a toast to future flights — with white wine instead of champagne — and thanked each other for the months of work to re-establish the flights.
“This is just the beginning,” Hayes said. “I look forward to growing our service here in the years to come.”
The Fort Lauderdale terminal outside Gate F10 resembled more of a party than a regular flight. A salsa band played as passengers munched on Cuban pastries.
José Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban ambassador to the U.S., said reaching this point required months of negotiations between U.S. transportation and security officials and their counterparts in Cuba.
“Today is another historic day,” he said. “And we have been saying that phrase many times during the last months.”
President Obama opened the door to Cuba in December 2014, when he and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced that the longtime foes would re-establish diplomatic relations. Much has changed since then, with officials re-opening embassies in Washington and Havana, and U.S. businesses signing new deals with Cuba.
Domenic Santana, a retired nightclub owner from New York City, said that opening inspired him to return to his native Cuba and get reacquainted with the country he left as a child. Santana proudly held out his ticket for Wednesday’s inaugural flight: seat 1A.
“I splurged a little,” Santana, 53, said with a laugh. “This is just so meaningful for me. Not knowing my country, not knowing the people, it’s about time I’m going back. It’s long overdue.”
Despite Obama’s opening with Cuba, the U.S. still maintains an economic embargo on the communist island, which has made travel there difficult in the past.
In past decades, Americans had to establish that they fit into one of 12 travel categories approved by the U.S. government, including educational, cultural, religious and business trips. They then had to rely on costly and cumbersome charter flights that operated mostly out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
The Obama administration changed those rules. Now, U.S. travelers can book flights online from 12 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and New York City. They can clear the U.S. visa requirement by buying one at the airline ticket counter, and they can compare prices from 10 different airlines.
Leanne Spencer, a wedding planner from Salt Lake City, said she spent days calling and emailing the State and Treasury departments to make sure she could legally be on Wednesday’s flight. She wanted to take her daughter, Natalie, to Cuba to see a place they had only known through documentaries and movies.
She eventually got someone from the Treasury Department on the phone who assured her that her trip fit into the educational category of approved travel.
“He said, ‘Have a great time,’” said Spencer, 51, who paid $50 for her visa at the Fort Lauderdale airport Wednesday morning. “It was easy.”
About 161,000 Americans — not including Cuban-Americans visiting relatives — made the journey in 2015, a 77% jump from the previous year. That number jumped another 80% in the first three months of 2016, and the stream of Americans could continue as new flights take off, said José Luis Perelló, an economist with the University of Havana’s Center for Tourism Studies.
Santana said that influx will help countless Cubans improve their financial situation. And he hopes they remember that.
“They should make a big, big statue in honor of Obama,” he said. “He was the president to start everything and hopefully he’ll be remembered in Cuba for many years to come.”