Delta Air Lines is about to launch its first scheduled flights to Cuba since 1961, renewing a connection that captures the imagination of some travelers and could grow relations between the two countries.
“You’ve been staring at a door that’s been closed for 55 years, and now it’s open,” said Eric Goldmann, a frequent flier who booked a seat on the inaugural. People will want “to walk through that.”
Atlanta-based Delta on Thursday launches daily flights from Atlanta, Miami and New York to Havana — though in the wake of Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s death, the inaugural flights will be accompanied by less fanfare than originally planned.
“Out of respect for the people of Cuba during their period of mourning, we felt it was appropriate to cancel or tone down a number of events and items that were originally planned,” Delta spokesman Anthony Black said.
Delta has canceled celebrations it had planned in Havana, including a reception at the city’s Hotel Nacional, a press conference at the Havana airport and tour of the city for Delta guests. A delegation led by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has also pulled out of the trip on Delta’s first flight from Atlanta.
A Delta executive will still make remarks at the gate at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport before the first flight takes off.
The launch of the Atlanta-Havana route 55 years to the day from when Delta pulled out of Cuba follows the start of the scheduled flights from the U.S. to Havana on Monday from Miami, and routes from other cities in the U.S. to other cities in Cuba that started earlier this year.
Delta opened a ticket office in Havana in early November, making it the first U.S. airline to do so in preparation for the launch of flights this year, and more than 200 employees at Delta have worked to prepare for operations in the country through a tangle of logistics and regulatory issues.
Printers, laptops and Delta balloons had to be flown down since they couldn’t be purchased in Cuba.
The launch of scheduled U.S.-Cuba flights is part of President Barack Obama’s efforts to gradually build relations between the two countries. The future of those efforts is now uncertain as President-elect Trump raised the possibility of rolling back U.S.-Cuba relations.
To travelers like Goldmann, that’s even more reason to hop on flights to Havana now.
“People want to know what it’s like down there,” Goldmann said. “It’s kind of like ‘the forbidden.’ We were not able to travel here and all of a sudden now you can.”
Travelers from the U.S. to Cuba must still fall under one of 12 approved categories, including professional meetings, religious activities or people-to-people travel. Goldmann, who is Jewish, is traveling under the religious category and is bringing donations for a synagogue in Havana.
Friends and family “can’t believe I’m going,” said Goldmann, who lives in Alpharetta.” It was a very hot topic over Thanksgiving at my house with my family.”
Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, said the new flights will make it much easier for professional travel to Cuba. Cuba is the fifth-largest chicken export market for the U.S. poultry industry, with Georgia as the largest chicken-producing state.
Delta in recent years offered limited charter service, but canceled that service due to weak demand.
For Atlantans, getting to Havana has typically meant flying to Miami and taking a charter flight from there, “which has been a pain — a great inconvenience,” Sumner said. It’s so much more convenient if we could take Delta all the way.”
But he said finding accommodations will still be challenging, with few hotels available. Renting rooms or villas from individuals is possible through AirBnB.
“We have a lot of people from our industry who go back and forth to Cuba for business purposes,” Sumner said. “It’s good to have Delta service… We’ll help each other.”
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