SANTA CLARA, Cuba A JetBlue Airways passenger jet landed in Santa Clara, Cuba, Wednesday morning, becoming the first scheduled passenger flight from the United States in more than a half century. The Airbus A320, packed with officials, touched down in what the Obama administration hopes will usher in an era of more routine travel to and from the Communist-ruled island. Among the passengers on the 150-seat Airbus A320 are U.S. Transportation Secretary and former mayor of Charlotte Anthony Foxx, and JetBlue’s CEO Robin Hayes. News reporters and photographers also joined the flight along with regular travelers, including some of Cuban descent, occupying nearly half the seats. Cuba and the United States began normalizing relations in December 2014 after 18 months of secret talks. The countries had been hostile for more than five decades, since Fidel Castro ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a revolution that steered the island on a communist course and made it a close ally of the Soviet Union. Since Obama has been unable to persuade the U.S. Congress to lift a longstanding trade embargo, U.S. citizens are still prohibited from visiting Cuba as tourists. The Obama administration instructed government officials to approve exceptions to the ban, ranging from cultural, religious and educational travel to business and visiting family. Despite those limitations, U.S. airlines have rushed to start flights adding a lot of capacity and setting themselves up to lose money on the trips in the short run, said industry consultant Robert Mann. “Most carriers look at international markets that have been restricted and are just opening up as an investment,” Mann said. “You need to get your foot in the door.” Services on regional carrier Silver Airways and American Airlines from the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area to Cuba’s outlying provinces are the next to start, in September. Three other carriers will follow. Mann said the companies probably offered to fly to Cuban cities unknown to many American travelers, so that U.S. officials would look favorably on their applications to fly to Havana. A memorandum of understanding between Cuba and the United States will limit Havana flights to 20 round trips per day. U.S. officials have yet to announce a final decision on which companies will get those coveted routes. Reuters News Service contributed to this report.
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