Luminaries gathered around the gate at Ft. Lauderdale International Airport where JetBlue flight 387 to Santa Clara, Cuba was about to become the first scheduled flight between the U.S. and Cuba since October 1962.
What makes the flight so important is that it was the first flight to operate under a bilateral Air Transport Agreement signed by the U.S. and Cuba earlier this year as part of President Obama’s broader policy of rapprochement with the island nation. Like a tree about to give fruit, JetBlue’s plane and many more like it hold the promise that two previous adversaries can weave threads of connection and pull away the mantle of darkness that has defined a long history of hostility and mistrust.
As the crowded ceremony begins, JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes speaks to an energetic crowd eager to experience a historic moment. Mr. Hayes says, “We were formed 16 years ago with a mission of inspiring humanity and a desire to connect families and bring them together.”
Aircraft: Airbus A320
Flight Operations: Captain Mark Luaces. Born in Miami, Captain Mark Luaces’ father was an aircraft mechanic for Eastern Airlines. His parents are both Cuban – his father from Pinar del Rio and his mother from Camagüey. Both came to the U.S. as teenagers.
First Officer Francisco Barreras: Barreras’ parents both came from Cuba in 1961. His great uncle was the general manager for Pan Am in Havana, who later took part in Operation Peter Pan which provided air transportation to the U.S. for Cuban children. Another family member was a pilot for the Castro family.
A Rancourous History
Air service has been an integral part of U.S.-Cuba relations for a century. That history is marked with highs and lows reflecting the tensions that have buffeted the two nations for almost 60 years. Operation Pedro Pan began in December 1960, bringing 14,048 unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States until the end of the operation in October 1962 when commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba were suspended. It was was largest recorded child refugee exodus in the Western Hemisphere.
Between January 1959, the date of the Cuba revolution, and October 1962, 248,070 persons fled the island by air for the United States.
A New Era of Air Service to Cuba Begins
On June 10, 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued an order authorizing six U.S. airlines to provide scheduled passenger flights between various U.S. cities and cities in Cuba other than Havana.
DOT’s order grants the applications of American, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver Airways, Southwest, and Sun Country. These carriers are now authorized to provide various services to Cuban cities other than Havana, from Miami, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis.
Under the terms of the arrangement, DOT may allocate up to 20 daily round-trip frequencies for U.S. carrier scheduled passenger or all-cargo services between the U.S. and Havana. For scheduled passenger or all-cargo services to and from each of the other nine international airports in Cuba, DOT may allocate up to 10 daily round-trip frequencies at each airport, for a total of 90 daily non-Havana U.S.-Cuba round-trip frequencies.
The requests to serve non-Havana cities were all under the daily cap of 10 flights, and the applications approved by DOT were uncontested on the record.
The DOT expects to reach a final decision in the Havana carrier selection later this year.
Existing flights between the two nations have been limited to what is called “charter” flights because – technically speaking – the flights are not part of a “regular” schedule and do not operate under a bilateral Air Transport Agreement. Nevertheless, the charter flights fly daily and often use planes from the inventory of US flag carriers such as American Airlines.
Here are the approved non-Havana routes and frequencies: