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First U.S.-Cuba Commercial Flight In More Than 50 Years Takes Off

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The first commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba in more than half a century has taken off today, marking another milestone in the thawing relationship between the two countries.

The inaugural trip is a JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Santa Clara in central Cuba. And as NPR’s Scott Horsley tells our Newscast unit, the plane is piloted by two Cuban-Americans.

“JetBlue Captain Mark Luaces and First Officer Francisco Barreras are both the sons of Cuban immigrants,” he says.

It’s the first such trip since the height of the Cold War. Previously, most Americans flying to Cuba would either take charter flights or travel through a third country.

Meanwhile, other airlines are making plans to expand their service to the island nation. As Scott reported, “American Airlines launches regular service from Miami next week. And half a dozen other U.S. carriers are expected to follow, offering a total of 20 flights each day.”

As we have reported, the U.S. embargo remains in place, and U.S. citizens are not allowed to travel to Cuba as tourists. The visit must fall into one of 12 categories, including family visits, journalism and religious activities. But earlier this year, the U.S. loosened the embargo to allow “person-to-person educational exchange” including independently organized trips, making it easier for U.S. citizens to travel to the country.

The number of U.S. visitors in recent years has already shown a distinct upward trend. As Reuters reported, “In 2015, the Cuban government reported 161,233 Americans visited, compared to 91,254 in 2014, and arrivals through June nearly doubled over the same period last year.”

According to The Associated Press, it’s not totally clear when the last commercial flight from the U.S. flew to the island: “Historians disagree … but it appears to have been after Cuba banned incoming flights during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.”

“It’s a positive step and a concrete contribution to the process of improving relations between the two countries,” Cuba’s vice minister of transportation, Eduardo Rodriguez, was quoted as saying by the AP.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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