TAMPA — Michael Vaughan has been flying commercial planes for more than 17 years, but on a recent Friday, he was entering new territory.
Vaughan was flying a JetBlue Airways Airbus A320 from Tampa to Havana for the first time. The veteran pilot, who is based in Boston but has a home in Tampa, requested the assignment.
“It will be neat to say that I at least touched ground,” said the former military man.
As the United States resumes diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in nearly 50 years, airlines are seizing the opportunity to deliver Americans to an island nation that has for the most part been a mystery to them. The Obama administration has eased travel restrictions to Cuba, allowing Americans who fall under 12 approved categories to visit the island. This week, President Obama announced that the USA and Cuba have agreed to open embassies in each other’s countries.
Americans still can’t go to Cuba strictly for tourism. And U.S. airlines are still not allowed to sell tickets for Cuba flights, but they can operate the aircraft. Airlines such as JetBlue and American have teamed up with charter companies to sell seats. The charter companies are licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
JetBlue has been flying to Cuba via charter companies since 2011, when Obama took the first steps to lift travel restrictions by allowing Americans to visit Cuba on authorized people-to-people tours.
The airline already operates a total of four weekly round-trip flights between Florida and the Cuban destinations of Havana and Santa Clara in Cuba. The New York-based airline has partnered with Cuba Travel Services, Xael Charters, and ABC Charters on those flights.
On Friday, JetBlue and Cuba Travel Services will launch a new Friday round-trip flight between New York’s JFK International Airport to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.
By adding more flights, JetBlue is strengthening its position in Cuba — a move that could pay dividends for the carrier once regular airlines flights are again allowed. JetBlue already has a strong presence in the Caribbean.
“In teaming with an experienced charter partner like Cuba Travel Services, our first flight from JFK to Cuba brings JetBlue’s award-winning experience to Cuba-bound customers and offers new direct travel options from New York, where many Cubans live today,” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said in a statement.
Even though travelers have to go through a charter company to purchase their tickets, they experience the same JetBlue service they would get on any flight.
The A320 is adorned with the JetBlue livery. Flight attendants and pilots wear JetBlue uniforms. Wi-Fi, snacks and satellite TV are free as they are on all JetBlue flights.
On a recent JetBlue flight from Tampa to Cuba sold under by ABC Charters, the Wi-Fi worked for most of the hour-long flight.
The plane could hold up to 150 passengers. But on this flight, three seats were reserved for a mechanic and two on-board charter representatives.
Charter representative Aida Lopez, who is Puerto Rican, was there to answer passengers’ questions and generally help them in any way she could
“I understand their culture,” she says. “I understand them very well, their needs, what they want.”
Flight attendant Angie Jimenez, a Colombian-American, calls the Cuba flight “one of my favorite flights to work.”
“I like working with the Latin community,” she says. “I feel comfortable. They love the fact that we all speak Spanish.”
The flights are often filled with Cubans who live in the United States but want to reunite with relatives back home.
“This is wonderful that we can connect these people with their families whom they haven’t seen in years,” says Linda Meech, JetBlue’s general manager in Tampa.
None of the JetBlue employees can actually explore Cuba once they land, however. For now, they are not allowed. And that’s fine by mechanic Albert Coca, who was born in Cuba but left for the United States when he was four years old.
“I’ve had mixed feelings about it,” he says.
Vaughan says he would like to someday travel around Cuba — or even just the terminal.
“I’d like to go into the terminal and try some local food,” he says.
Vaughan, who has been with JetBlue for nearly 10 years, enjoys seeing destinations from thousands of feet in the air. Some of his favorite places to fly into are Barbados and St. Lucia.
Unfortunately, on his first flight into and out of Cuba, it was too cloudy for him to see much. For now, he does not have any more Cuba flights scheduled, but he hopes to make it back there some day when it’s clear out.
“It looks so much better from above sometimes,” he says.
Cuba flights operated by JetBlue
– New York JFK to Havana (HAV): Fridays, flights sold by Cuba Travel Services
– Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to Havana (HAV): Fridays, flights sold by Xael Charters
– Tampa (TPA) to Havana: Tuesdays, flights sold by ABC Charters
– Tampa (TPA) to Santa Clara (SNU): Wednesdays, flights sold by ABC Charters
– Tampa (TPA) to Havana (HAV): Fridays, flights sold by ABC Charters
Source: JetBlue. Schedules accurate as of July 2, 2015.
Nancy Trejos, USA TODAY