SANTA CLARA, Cuba (AP) — It took an hour and a $330 paper check to buy the printed blue ticket for my one-way charter flight from Havana to Miami, the last I will ever take.
Check-in meant nearly two hours in a line that almost spilled out the terminal doors. I barely made it aboard my 45-minute flight Sunday.
I came back home to Cuba in seat 4B Wednesday on the first commercial flight from the U.S. in more than half a century. The electronic ticket cost $98.90 and took less than three minutes to buy on JetBlue’s website. For an extra $35, I hauled back 100 pounds of goods near-unobtainable in Cuba: porcelain kitchen tiles, ice-cube trays, a designer dress for my fiancee.
Multiply those numbers by roughly 300 flights a week and you have the makings of a sea change in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, perhaps the most important since Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama declared detente nearly two years ago.
After more than 50 years without regular air service, Cubans will be able to visit family in the U.S. on the same commercial airlines that serve the rest of the world. No more slipping a “tip” to a government sales agent to simply allow you to buy a more than $500 ticket for the short hop to Miami. No one weighing your hand luggage on the way back and charging you $2 for every pound in excess of the 10-pound limit.
“This a great deal and we’re already JetBlue members,” South Florida grandmother Neta Rodriguez told me in the check-in line Wednesday morning. “You can buy it from the comfort of your own home. You don’t even want to know how much I’ve spent on trips to Cuba over the years.”
For Americans, the burdensome process of traveling to Cuba is, suddenly, almost seamless. A federal affidavit has become a box you mouse-click on an airline website. You can buy Cuban visas in U.S. airports. All of a sudden, a weekend getaway to Cuba is a real possible for millions of Americans. By December, you’ll be able to fly direct to Havana from Houston, Los Angeles and New York, alongside the more obvious Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
The growing class of Cubans and Cuban-Americans who split their lives between the two countries may one day turn Miami-Havana flights a day into the Caribbean equivalent of the New York-Washington D.C. shuttle.
The mood aboard Wednesday’s flight from Fort Lauderdale was celebratory, and tinged with imagery from the era when Cuba was the United States’ tropical backyard escape. A band played Cuban music at the gate. A commemorative poster for JetBlue’s new destination features a jubilantly dancing couple in traditional dress.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes rode up front, and spoke over the PA system to cheering passengers who waved souvenir Cuban flags.
Many aboard the 150-seat Airbus A320 were journalists and JetBlue staff. A good number of those who were neither reporters nor airline employees had no idea they were going to be aboard a historic flight, and were alternately taken back and impressed as Foxx delivered a short talk about what he described as an important step forward in Obama’s policy of normalization.
“Sorry I couldn’t pick up, I was listening to the president,” one man told a relative in Spanish, I think tongue in cheek, after we landed.
The Cuban and American government publicly insist that the U.S. formal legal ban on tourism remains a high barrier for U.S. visitors because it requires them to engage in one of 12 legally approved categories of activities including “people-to-people” educational travel. In private, most acknowledge that the Obama administration has turned the tourism ban into a paper-thin legal fiction.
Americans are no longer required to travel in groups led by U.S. guides working with Cuban government travel companies, making any travel requirement unenforceable. Most obviously, some of the new U.S. routes fly to beach resorts where you can find powdery white beaches, cold mojitos and government-run all-inclusive hotels but not a lot of educational activities.
Beaches aside, the irony of Obama’s opening up Cuba travel is that it allows adventurous Americans to fly direct to Cuba and cruise around on their own, independent of government tour guides and bus drivers who make sure they hew to a state-approved itinerary.
Keane Daly and Taimairie Locke, both 25, were heading down on my flight for a weeklong backpacking trip around the island, to see the sights and, educationally, practice their Spanish. They had reserved their first night on Airbnb. Beyond that, they would improvise.
“We’re just going to see where the world takes us,” Locke said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Weissenstein has been Havana bureau chief of The Associated Press since July 2014, four months before the declaration of detente between the United States and Cuba.