The atmosphere was lively at the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood-International Airport Saturday morning as eager passengers celebrated the return of direct flights to Cuba.
Travelers sported straw hats and danced to live music as they filled the JetBlue Airways terminal before boarding the first direct flight to Cuba in nearly 30 years.
Since direct flights ended in 1987, most travelers have had to fly to other countries before then traveling on to Cuba.
"It's very exciting," said Maria, a passenger who left her family in Cuba when she came to the United States in 1959. "It's very convenient and it's a good advantage for us not to have to travel out of the country to a third country in order see our families."
Under a U.S. trade embargo, tourist travel to Cuba from the United States has been prohibited and direct flights were available only at Miami International Airport. But in March, following the easing of travel restrictions by President Barack Obama, customs officials began allowing direct flights for approved travelers from Tampa International Airport, and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and several others are following suit.
Though there has been some protest over the launch of direct flights to the Communist nation, Maria said those with family in Cuba should be able to see relatives whenever possible.
"A lot of people are against it, especially the people who do not have family over there," she acknowledged. "There's a 50-50 split here, and I believe that the people who do have family in Cuba are for it.
"I don't think the government should interfere, especially when we do have families that we haven't seen and we have been here not because we want to but because we have to for political reasons."
Airline Brokers Company Inc. is organizing the chartered flights, which are scheduled to depart on JetBlue every Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
An increase in the number of Cuba-bound flights from Fort Lauderdale is expected later this year.
"It's least expensive to travel from here," said ABC president Vivan Mannerud. "People who are going to visit their families are counting their pennies."
Saturday morning, the route's first passengers were treated to live music, cake, Cuban food, balloons, and other celebratory treats as they moved through the terminal.
"It's a happy day," Mannerud said. "We've been working on this for over a year."