MIAMI (CBS4)- The first charter flight from Fort Lauderdale to Cuba departed Saturday. Airline Brokers Company started non-stop flights once a week to Havana.
The flights, operated by Jetblue Airways, will depart every Saturday at 12:30 p.m. from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Passengers began arriving at the airport Saturday morning in advance of the departure. Airport spokesman Gregory Meyer said the terminal is packed with passengers and their luggage.
Some 115 people were expected to board the one-hour flight to Havana's Jose Marti International Airport.
The service is expected to expand to twice a week in the near future, pending approval from Cuban authorities.
In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection granted approval to Tampa International Airport to begin service to Cuba. Island Travel & Tours plans to begin charter service from Tampa to Cuba in November and will begin a flight that connects the Washington, D.C., area to Havana in January, its owner said.
Flights from Tampa to Havana began for the first time in nearly 50 years on Sept. 9.
Island Travel, which is moving from California to Tampa, plans weekly service on Sundays from Tampa International Airport, starting Nov. 6, said William Hauf, president and owner of the charter company, according to CBS4 news partner the Miami Herald.
The round-trip flight will cost $499. Hauf said he would be offering a different pricing schedule for luggage than the other charter companies. He'll be charging $40 for the first 55-pound bag, then $60 each for the second and third bags. Other charter companies generally allow the first 44 pounds free, then charge $2 per pound for the remainder of the luggage.
Three licensed charter operators have said they will provide flights to Havana. In addition to Miami, only airports in New York and Los Angeles have been authorized to offer flights to Cuba.
Legally, U.S. citizens not from Cuba are not allowed to fly to the island nation from the U.S. According to the latest U.S. census, Tampa Bay has the second largest Cuban-American population in the states second only to Miami-Dade County.
The Tampa airport officials expect the flights to begin by summer or early fall.
In June, U.S. Customs and Border Protection denied Key West International Airport's request to accommodate passenger air service to and from Cuba.
The denial, dated May 25, cites the airport's lack of proper inspection facilities and appropriate or sufficient federal personnel.
Soon after taking office, President Barack Obama eased the family travel restrictions to pre-Bush administration levels. He has also issued regulations encouraging travel opportunities for religious, cultural and educational groups. Pure tourist travel is still prohibited under the U.S. trade embargo imposed on Cuba decades ago.
But some Republican Cuban-American congressmen from Miami-area districts are sponsoring measures to roll back the Obama changes.
When Obama eased some restrictions on American travel to Cuba early this year, it raised hopes in Key West that charter flights might soon be able to travel the 90 miles between the two islands. Customs' decision on the March 22 request temporarily dashed those hopes, according to CBS4 news partner the Miami Herald.
But county Airports Director Peter Horton told the County Commission that he's confident upgrades planned at the airport will clear the path for flights if the long-standing embargo is lifted.
Horton said the airport is working on the first phase, a $250,000 project to improve security.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba, which has been on the books since the 1960s, prohibits flights by commercial airlines.
Hauf said he doesn't have an exact date yet for his inaugural flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport but plans it for January.
(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald contributed material for this report)
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