The first commercial flight between the United States and Cuba in more than a half century landed in the central city of Santa Clara on Wednesday morning, re-establishing regular air service severed at the height of the Cold War.
Cheers broke out in the cabin of JetBlue flight 387 as the plane touched down at Abel Santamaria Airport. Passengers — mostly airline executives, U.S. government officials and journalists, with a sprinkling of Cuban-American families and U.S. travelers — were given gift bags with Cuban cookbooks, commemorative luggage tags and Cuban flags, which they were encouraged to wave.
Passengers arrived at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport as early as 6 a.m. to check-in to the historic 10 a.m flight.
"I want to get to discover the country where I was born," said 53-year-old passenger Dominic Santana. "I feel like Christopher Columbus."
Another passenger, Eric Diaz, told NBC 6 he escaped Cuba on a boat in 2008 and has not seen his mother or children in eight years. Wednesday marks his first chance to visit his hometown near the flight's destination city.
"I'm going to hug my kids, hug my mom," Diaz said.
NBC 6's Amanda Plasencia, the daughter of Cuban exiles, was on board the JetBlue flight.
"Being here on board I'm feeling excited," Plasencia said, adding that being a part of this historic first flight has left her "feeling emotional."
There was no shortage of fanfare. Outside the flight's gate a band played Cuban music and the jet made its departure after a small ceremony on the tarmac featuring the flags of both countries
"This is our first commercial flight to Cuba so can you imagine," Wanda Garcia said. "To be the first flight that you can just go into the plane and just come back and it's just overwhelming. I wish my father was alive to see this and it's emotional."
The plane arrived in Cuba just before 11 a.m.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes both addressed passengers on board the 150-seat Airbus A320, which was staffed by a specially selected five-member crew of Cuban-Americans. Airline executives changed from American business attire into loose-fitting Cuban-style guayabera shirts before landing.
"Today’s actions are the result of months of work by airlines, cities, the U.S. government, and many others toward delivering on President Obama’s promise to reengage with Cuba," Foxx said in a statement. "Transportation has a unique role in this historic initiative and we look forward to the benefits these new services will provide to those eligible for Cuba travel."
The arrival opens a new era of U.S.-Cuba travel with about 300 flights a week connecting the U.S. with an island cut off from most Americans by the 55-year-old trade embargo on Cuba and formal ban on U.S. citizens engaging in tourism on the island.
"Seeing the American airlines landing routinely around the island will drive a sense of openness, integration and normality. That has a huge psychological impact," said Richard Feinberg, author of the new book "Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy."
The plane later returned with about 150 people on board. Some said they took both flights just to be a part of history.
"It was an indescribable feeling to be a part of this, to be welcomed, to see our flag next to the Cuban flag when we stepped off the aircraft, words can't describe," flight attendant Jennifer Vance said.
The restart of commercial travel between the two countries is one of the most important steps in President Barack Obama's two-year-old policy of normalizing relations with the island. Historians disagree on the exact date of the last commercial flight but it appears to have been after Cuba banned incoming flights during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Secretary of State John Kerry said on Twitter that the last commercial flight was in 1961.
- From NBC 6 News Partners T51.com: EEUU y Cuba restablecen vuelos tras más de 50 años
Commercial flights are returning to the island nation after several carriers, including American, Southwest and JetBlue, received federal approval for round trip flights earlier this year.
[NATL] Photos: Beyond Cuba's Tourist Boom
But Cuban officials insist the continuing U.S. ban on tourism will limit the impact of commercial flights to Cuba, but some experts believe the drastic reduction in the difficulty of flying to Cuba could turn the surge in U.S. visitors into a tidal wave. Americans are allowed to visit the island on "people-to-people" cultural and educational visits, among other reasons.
Americans who fit one of 12 categories will now be able to fill out a federal affidavit by clicking a box on an online form and, in many cases, buy their Cuban tourist visa near the check-in counters of U.S. airports. Within weeks, Americans will be able to fly direct from cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis, Miami, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale to eight Cuban cities and two beach resorts.
The final announcement of routes to Havana, which could be announced Wednesday and start before December, is slated to include flights from Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and Houston, among others.
The first flight out of Miami International Airport to Cuba is scheduled to leave next Wednesday.
Plasencia will be providing extensive coverage from the ground in Santa Clara on NBC 6 News and NBC6.com Wednesday.
For more on these historic flights and continuing coverage on U.S.-Cuba relations, visit the NBC 6 Cuba Crossroad Section.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.