14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Santa Clara, 31 August 2016 – Raul Caceres was a bundle of nerves as he put the finishing touches on the JetBlue Airlines office that opened this Wednesday in the airport in Santa Clara, Cuba. A few hours before the arrival of the first commercial flight between Cuba and the United States since 1961, the employee answered questions from onlookers, as he fixed the company’s blue logo, while constantly looking to the sky.
The Airbus A-320 departed from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida at 10:06 am and touched down at Abel Santamaria Airport at 10:56 am. A crowd of relatives, foreign correspondents and security personnel waited at the doors to the terminal. There was no lack of tears, shouts of welcome and children scampering from side to side.
The blackboard showing the arrival times for each flight was removed from outside the airport this Tuesday, where it is now possible to read only the departure times. A measure that no employee could explain, although some of those waiting commented jokingly that it was “to avoid despair.”
As word spread that JetBlue’s Flight 387 had departed from Fort Lauderdale the journalists jockeyed for the best spots at the terminal door and excitement gripped the crowd.
Arriving in the plane was Anthony Foxx, US Secretary of Transportation, but the biggest hugs went not to the officials but to the passengers whose family and friends were waiting outside. The plane leaves for US soil this Wednesday at 1:15 in the afternoon, so those booked on the return flight were already at the airport.
Everyone was trying to make out the blue of the JetBlue logo, because the Santa Clara sky was one of dense grey clouds, associated with the ninth tropical depression of the season that has struck Cuba for several days, especially in the central and western parts of the island.
“Right now you can’t book a passage here,” Caceres told this newspaper, but “you can do it on the internet.” A piece of information supported by Nestor Nuñez, JetBlue’s manager, who added that the Santa Clara airport office is the company’s “only one right now,” on the island.
With a capacity for 220 passengers, the JetBlue flight marked a milestone with a 99 dollar one-way fare, a price that includes the insurance payment the Cuban government requires from visitors to the island.
“This is going to help put an end to the abuse,” commented Silvia, who was waiting for another flight outside the Santa Clara terminal, but who out of curiosity joined the welcome for the passengers coming from Fort Lauderdale. “For decades the prices for such a short trip have been abusive,” she explained. “My son travels frequently to the Caiman Islands and it costs more than three times as much,” complained the woman. With the recently inaugurated JetBlue service, “our family will be over the moon,” she said.
Pedro, a taxi driver waiting for a couple of Americans coming in on the flight, sees other advantages to direct commercial flights. “It will be easier to bring luggage now, because before firms like Havanatur [one of the companies managing charter flights to the island] took advantage of it to set very high fees for every last pound.”
Economy class tickets on JetBlue to Cuba carry a fee of $25 for the first suitcase, $35 for the second and $100 for the third. So for a total of $160, passengers can bring in around 90 pounds of luggage, good news for those who are bringing donations, gifts and other products unavailable on the island.
“If this continues,” Pedro begins to say with a certain suspicion, “we’re going to see all those Cubans with Spanish passports going to Miami and buying things to bring back on these flights.” The route of the “mules” is now through the Bahamas, the Caiman Islands or through charter flights. “It’s going to result in lower prices on the black market,” the taxi driver speculates.
A customs employee told this newspaper that “after a process of improvement, the airport has the capacity to serve 600 passengers an hour.” A figure still far below the number of travelers that could result from 110 daily commercial flights from the United States to Cuba, approved by the US Department of Transportation.