Historic U.S. charter flights to Cuba

The first charter flight to Cuba in decades took off at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Saturday afternoon, Sept. 17, after a spray of water christened its 1:00 p.m. departure.

To mark the occasion, the 110 passengers were greeted with balloons and Cuban-style soft drinks.

Using a leased JetBlue plane, the Miami-based Airline Brokers Company says it will be providing nonstop service from Fort Lauderdale to Havana every Saturday, as well as a return flight.

Vivian Mannerud, president and founder of Airline Brokers, passed out straw hats to the passengers and the check-in took on a party air.

“It’s a very festive day. I’m very happy,” Mannerud told reporters, waving a Cuban flag.

Under the Obama Administration’s liberalized Cuba travel policy, a dozen airports, including Fort Lauderdale, joined Miami, New York and Los Angeles earlier this year as locations authorized to handle Cuba charters from the United States and Puerto Rico. Tampa and San Juan, Puerto Rico, were the first airports to initiate new service.

The round-trip flight from Fort Lauderdale costs US$379, somewhat less than the US$409 to US$439 that Airline Brokers charges for its Cuba service from Miami International Airport, Mannerud said.

The price was an attractive feature for many passengers who also got to take an extra 20 pounds of carry-on baggage for free, beyond the first 44 pounds.

Luz Gonzalez of Miami, going to visit her husband in Matanzas, liked the idea of being on the historic flight from Fort Lauderdale.

“We’ve never been to this airport before. It’s a lot less crowded,” she said.

Fort Lauderdale had been out of the Cuba passenger loop for the past 24 years, although there have been occasional flights carrying medical relief supplies to Cuba in the intervening years.

As the Mariel boatlift began in the spring of 1980, Fort Lauderdale was officially designated as the South Florida gateway to and from Cuba.

It retained this status until June 1987, though in practice Miami International Airport handled most of the charter flights to and from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island.

Until that designation changed, however, charter companies using Miami International had to get a waiver to take off and land.

The Broward County airport has been seeking permission to handle flights to and from Cuba at least since 1999, when it made a request during a period of the Clinton administration when the president had relaxed trade restrictions on Cuba.

CTS (Cuba Travel Services), a California company, also hopes to offer Cuba charters from Fort Lauderdale in the future.

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