Last week, JetBlue became the first U.S. airline in more than 50 years to operate a commercial passenger flight to Cuba.
The flight alone is a significant and historic occasion, one that was marked with much fanfare, beginning with the departure from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport where there was a Latin band, Cuban pastries and speeches from dignitaries.
Once the flight landed in Santa Clara, Cuba, the festivities continued. Passengers were greeted by a water cannon salute, crowds of curious Cubans and numerous local dignitaries.
"For the first time in decades, families separated by only a short stretch of water can easily and affordably visit a loved one, attend an important occasion or visit a special place - and the role we play speaks directly to our mission of inspiring humanity," said JetBlue's President and Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes.
JetBlue Flight 387 however, signals much more than a new route for a single airline. It's the beginning of a new era in travel between Cuba and the United States, and JetBlue is merely the first U.S. airline out of the gate when it comes to initiating flights to the island nation.
In the coming weeks and months the floodgates will truly open, initially including flights from Delta, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Frontier, Southwest, Spirit and United.
Between all of the airlines and all of their routes, the numbers of American travelers flooding into Cuba will increase in ways the Cubans are not likely prepared for.
"We've done the numbers," says Billy Sanez, vice president of marketing and communications for FareCompare. "If every seat is full on all of those airlines, that will amount to about 29,000 seats a week, times four weeks in a month, that's a pretty healthy number of travelers going to Cuba."
In addition, Sanez noted that on Wednesday of this week, the U.S. Department of Transportation gave the final green light to airlines that were specifically seeking approval to fly to Havana. The airlines receiving the Havana awards include network, low-cost, and ultra low-cost carriers such as Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines.
These newly approved flights will provide service to Havana from Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York City, Orlando and Tampa.
"Because the airlines have not yet announced and started selling flights to Havana, we do not have an exact number, but I estimate it will add about 8,000 seats weekly," Sanez added.
As for JetBlue, and the Fort Lauderdale-to-Santa Clara route that kicked off this week, it will run three times a week until October 1 when it will become once-daily service.
The airline is also planning once-daily nonstop service between Fort Lauderdale and Camaguey and Holguin beginning in November, pending final Cuban government approval.
"It's a momentous time in not only aviation history, but is actually a reflection of where today's global tourism industry is heading," says Dean Wicks, Chief Flights Officer of Wego. "You could make comparisons with Myanmar, Iran and many other destinations that have historically been inaccessible due to the political landscape. When power returned to the civilian government in Myanmar in 2011, international arrival figures began to move upwards."
In addition to the multiple airline routes making travel to Cuba easier, ticket prices are also quite the bargain for the time being, further facilitating travel.
JetBlue's introductory airfare for its first three new commercial Cuba routes is $99 one-way. And that price includes something practically unheard of in the industry - one free checked bag.
To ease any hesitations or further confusion among U.S. citizens about travel to Cuba, JetBlue is providing each passenger with the Cuban government required health insurance and is facilitating completion of U.S. required travel affidavits (which limit travel to one of 12 specific categories).
JetBlue has built completion of the travel affidavit into the booking process, allowing it to be completed in a couple of clicks when purchasing a ticket.
All of this progress is the result of a deal reached by the United States and Cuba in February, to allow commercial flights to the island nation for the first time in decades.
But to be clear, none of this news means that leisure travel to Cuba is now officially allowed. It's still a point that requires clarification.
Because while travel to Cuba from the U.S. remains limited to 12 approved categories (things such as journalist activities, professional research or meetings, educational and people-to-people exchanges, family visits, religious activities and humanitarian projects), even this requirement has been eased.
Now, travelers can visit Cuba, and simply document on their own, their educational activities.
Providing the required documentation meanwhile, is as easy as keeping a journal, retaining tickets from such places as museums or taking pictures of your interactions with Cubans, says Sanez.
This is a significant break from the past, when the U.S. government required obtaining special approval for such trips. And that permission was only granted to travel companies authorized by the U.S. government to provide educational trips, not to individuals.
In March the federal government relaxed that requirement. In a move designed increase the ability of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba and directly engage with the Cuban people, the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) announced that individuals are now allowed to travel to Cuba.
JetBlue is also facilitating the required day-of-travel Cuban Tourist Visa requirements. These are separate from the U.S. regulated 12 travel categories. Cuba requires visitors to obtain an entrance visa to visa the island. JetBlue will sell the visas at check-in at its gateway airports or at the flight gates for connecting travelers. Travelers will still need to contact the Cuban embassy in Washington to determine the appropriate visa for their travel plans.
"Cuba is the last frontier for all airlines, because although airlines have had chartered flights there, this is the first time in more than 50 years that there are scheduled flights and so everyone is competing to outdo each other in terms of service," says Sanez.
The competition may be increased by international carriers as well, according to some travel industry watchers.
"Cuba has captured the imagination of the rest of the world too and I'd expect other international carriers to be considering in what ways they can tie into routes," says Wicks.
And as all of this competition between airlines powers forward, and the numbers of American travelers to the island increases exponentially, the question in many people's mind is what will be the impact on the island. Not only are airlines stepping up their offerings, but so too are cruise lines. Cuba, a place that has remained relatively untouched by the outside world, giving it a charm many have come to love, may soon be a very different place.
Some prefer to think that the impact will be subtle and far from immediate.
"The charm of the old cars and the old buildings, that's never going to go away," says Sanez. "Obviously there's going to be an influx of dollars there. Hopefully that will create something better. Maybe with more money the infrastructure will get better. I am Latin, and know a lot of Cubans who have left and second generation Cubans who have gone back and who feel there will be a big change, but a lot of that charm will remain on some level."