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US transport chief in Cuba for first regular commercial flight

Washington and Havana agreed in February to restore direct commercial flights -- part of the watershed changes initiated in December 2014

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US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will travel to Cuba this week, a trip that coincides with the first regular US commercial flight between the two countries in over 50 years, a Cuban official said Monday.

On Wednesday, US carrier JetBlue Airways will make the inaugural flight -- the first of its kind since 1961 -- between Fort Lauderdale, Florida and the central Cuban city of Santa Clara.

Washington and Havana agreed in February to restore direct commercial flights -- part of the watershed changes initiated in December 2014 when US President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro announced a thaw after more than 50 years of Cold War hostility. Diplomatic relations were restored in July 2015.

“Coinciding with this inaugural flight, US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will travel to Cuba, landing at the Villa Clara airport and then going to Havana,” said Cuban Deputy Transportation Minister Eduardo Rodriguez.

It was not immediately clear if Foxx would actually be on the JetBlue flight.

Rodriguez said Foxx had “requested” meetings with his Cuban counterpart Adel Yzquierdo and with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.

“The revival of regular direct flights is a positive step and a contribution to the process of improving relations between the two countries,” Rodriguez said.

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) was not immediately available to comment on Foxx’s travel plans.

The restored scheduled air service will include 110 daily roundtrips, with 90 already authorized by both governments to nine Cuban airports, many of them in or near tourism hotspots.

The US government announced in June that six US airlines had been licensed to operate the non-Havana flights.

In addition to JetBlue, the others are American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines.

They will be permitted to operate flights from airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Philadelphia.

The Cuban cities to be served are Camaguey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguin, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.

In 1979, the two countries authorized charter flights, largely humanitarian in nature, to transport Cubans residing in the United States and limited categories of American travelers.

Except for a brief period in the 1980s, the charter flights have continued to operate. According to official figures, there were 4,783 charter flights in 2015 and 3,452 in the first six months of this year.