First nonstop commercial flight from Charlotte to Cuba lifts off

Charlotte-Havana inaugural flight

American Airlines flight 801 flies through a water cannon salute prior to takeoff for Cuba. It is the inaugural flight for what will be daily service between Charlotte and Havana.
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American Airlines flight 801 flies through a water cannon salute prior to takeoff for Cuba. It is the inaugural flight for what will be daily service between Charlotte and Havana.

After a Cuban coffee reception and a water cannon salute, American Airlines flight 801 lifted off Wednesday morning at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport bound for Havana, Cuba – the latest in a string of new commercial flights between the United States and Cuba.

[READ MORE: Thinking about going? Don’t leave until you know these 10 things.]

The inaugural flight, which took to the air at 9:08 a.m. for its two-hour 28-minute journey, held 56 passengers in a plane with room for 128. American Airlines treated passengers – and others who gathered to celebrate the new destination – to cafe con leche, pastelitos (pastries) and Cuban sandwiches from Charlotte Cuban restaurant Piece of Havana.

Piloting the plane was Cuban-born Domingo Alfaro, who immigrated to the United States during the Cuban revolution in 1962, at 13 months old, “so this is a long-awaited homecoming.” He’s flown to Cuba before, piloting charter flights, but has never set foot outside the airport.

“Never in my wildest dreams” had he imagined flying a commercial jet from the U.S. into Cuba, he said.

[READ MORE: Are these flights a good thing for the Cuban people or not? Four Charlotte Cuban-Americans offer thoughts.]

Alfaro, who lives in Miami, won’t be flying the Charlotte-Havana route after this flight, and said he wouldn’t be able to leave the Havana airport Wednesday, either, because the plane was due to return to Charlotte that afternoon.

But he said he looked forward to saying “Welcome to Havana” in both English and Spanish. “I’ll be able to touch dirt” in Cuba, he said.

Miran Rodriguez, 74, was emotional about returning to her native Cuba after not visiting for two years. Having the chance to fly direct from her adopted city of Charlotte is “una maravilla,” or marvelous, she said, and her eyes welled up at the thought of no longer having to make the arduous trip, through Miami via charter flight.

“For so long, we’ve been wanting to have this,” she said in Spanish, before kissing grandson Roberto Amor, who accompanied his grandmother to the gate.

Some Havana-bound passengers, unaware they were boarding an inaugural flight, were surprised to find the camera crews and local dignitaries at gate D10.

“We had no idea,” laughed Stephanie Walters of Hampton Roads, Va., who was traveling to Havana and Varadero, Cuba, with two friends for a four-day trip. They said they picked Havana because they’d heard and read about its vibrant culture and friendly citizens.

They booked an Airbnb and planned to make it an educational trip filled with museums and historical sites.

There were tears among some who didn’t board Wednesday’s flight.

Danliud Suarez and his family came to the United States from Cuba three years ago as refugees and now live in High Point. On Wednesday, he teared up as he waved goodbye to his grandmother, who was going back to see family still in Cuba.

“I’m making plans so I can go, too,” Suarez said in Spanish.

Charlotte dignitaries including Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Charlotte Aviation Director Brent Cagle and American Airlines executive Terri Pope gave brief remarks, with Roberts making a few comments in Spanish.

Rocio Gonzalez, executive director of the Charlotte Latin American Chamber of Commerce, watched the water-cannon salute from the tarmac.

“The Cuban people will benefit (from Americans traveling from Charlotte and other cities) because they’ll be able to ask Americans how they feel about living in the United States and what it’s like,” she said. “It will be a true exchange of ideas that is not filtered by the (Cuban) government.”

While the mood was celebratory in Charlotte, the plane was headed for a somber Havana, where the country is in the midst of nine days of official mourning, following Saturday’s death of leader Fidel Castro. Many museums have closed their doors and there’s a state-sanctioned ban on the live music that is such a huge part of Cuba’s culture.

Wednesday’s flight was supposed to include several city and county officials on a two-night “cultural excursion,” with visits to a rum museum, tobacco factory, artist studio and more. But Cuba’s plan to mourn Castro forced that to be canceled, as many of the scheduled stops would be closed.

For passengers who had traveled between the U.S. and Havana before, Wednesday’s arrival in Havana was sure to be a treat.

Before the start of this fall’s commercial flights between the two countries, U.S. passengers flew into Havana only on charter flights and went through customs in an aging, no-frills building at José Martí International Airport. Now, American Airlines passengers are expected to arrive at the airport’s more glamorous Terminal 3, which Canadian and European commercial flights have traditionally used.

American and several other airlines began flying regular routes to several Cuban cities in late summer. Monday was the start of American’s Havana-bound service, with an inaugural flight out of Miami International Airport. The airline now flies to six Cuban cities.

JetBlue started service from Orlando to Havana on Tuesday, and twice-daily service from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Havana today.

Thursday, Spirit Airlines will begin service from Fort Lauderdale; Delta will launch service from Miami, New York’s JFK and Atlanta to Havana; and Frontier will have its inaugural flight from Miami to Havana. Southwest will begin offering twice-daily service from Fort Lauderdale to Havana on Dec. 12.

The new flights are part of the Obama administration’s thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, but their future could be in jeopardy depending on President-elect Donald Trump’s Cuba policies. Trump has said he will roll back Obama’s moves unless Cuba makes political changes.