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JetBlue's Cuba arrival
Crew members at the Santa Clara Abel Santamaría International Airport in Cuba welcome JetBlue Flight 387, the first commercial flight to Cuba from the U.S. in more than 50 years. (Credit: Business Wire)

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines today won the federal government’s formal approval to fly between Los Angeles and Havana, on the same day that JetBlue made a historic flight to Cuba.

JetBlue’s Flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the central Cuban city of Santa Clara marked the first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the two countries since 1961.

The chill in air travel began after Cuba’s communist revolution, and warmed up last year when a deal was struck to let U.S. carriers make up to 110 daily round-trip flights to Cuban cities. Since then, the Transportation Department and U.S. airlines have been laying the groundwork for service to Cuba.

Less than an hour after JetBlue’s departure from Fort Lauderdale, the 150-seat Airbus A320 touched down at Santa Clara’s Abel Santamaria Airport, 160 miles east of Havana. A water cannon sprayed a salute, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was the first to get off the plane once it came to rest.

“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 re-engage with Cuba,” Foxx said in a prepared 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.”

Six passenger airlines and one all-cargo carrier have been cleared to fly to Cuban cities other than Havana. Those schedules are expected to ramp up in the weeks ahead.

Alaska is one of eight airlines that have the right to fly to Havana starting this fall. The Transportation Department made its tentative selections last month and finalized those choices today. The other airlines are American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United. Alaska is the only airline offering direct service to Cuba from the West Coast.

The Cuban government still has to give its final approval before tickets can go on sale.

Alaska’s Boeing 737 flights will originate in Seattle, stop over in Los Angeles and then head to Havana. The return flights trace the same route in the other direction.

Flight 286 is scheduled to take off from Seattle at 5 a.m. daily, touch down at LAX at 7:40 a.m., take off again at 8:50 a.m. and arrive in Havana at 4:55 p.m. local time. Flight 287 would leave Havana at 5:55 p.m., arrive at LAX at 9 p.m., leave LAX at 10:50 p.m. and end in Seattle at 1:28 a.m. the next morning.

Even though air service to Cuba is resuming, travel for U.S. citizens is still limited. Travelers are permitted to visit Cuba only if the trip falls under one of 12 approved categories, such as family visits, education, journalism and humanitarian projects. A Cuban visa will be required.

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