US, Cuba commercial flights deal offers freedom to reconnect

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NAPLES, Fla. – The United States and Cuba signed a landmark deal to restore commercial air service between the countries for the first time in more than 50 years.

The milestone creates new opportunities for tourists and for Cubans, like Raul Estrada, who live in Southwest Florida.

Estrada is the operations manager for the Naples Airport. He was raised in Havana then moved to the United States at 11 years old. The agreement means he can reconnect with family members back in Cuba.

“I haven’t seen cousins,” he said, beginning to cry. “I haven’t seen my cousins in a long time.”

Now with a family of his own, Estrada said he looks forward to showing his wife and two daughters the beaches he remembers from his childhood.

“I think the beaches would be great for them to see, but the family comes first,” he said. “That’s what I want them to see, the family I haven’t been able to see in years.”

Estrada remembers Cuba fondly and called the agreement between the two countries “overdue.”

“To me, when I was growing up, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and I miss it. I would love to go back,” he said.

Finding a flight to Cuba could become easier for Estrada after today.

Bidding was opened immediately to American air carriers for as many as 110 U.S.-Cuba flights daily, according to the Associated Press. Approximately 20 charter flights currently operate between the two countries, with most flying out of Florida, but they are often expensive.

Commercial flights add the ease of online booking and 24-hour customer service, options that are mostly missing in the charter flight industry. Estrada said with more options, it should be easier for him to get back to his homeland.

“To me it’s the ease of being able to do this versus all the paperwork and all the visas and everything that goes along with. It just makes it easier for anyone to go back and I’m grateful it’s actually happening,” Estrada said.

American Airlines, United Airlines and JetBlue Airways are all looking into providing flights to U.S. and Cuba customers. The deal does not include flights by Cuba’s national airline, according to AP.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said new routes will be awarded by the summer. Further negotiations will then be worked out between the airlines and Cuba.

U.S. carriers have until March 2 to apply for routes to between Cuba.

The deal follows the 2014 announcement of the U.S. and Cuba efforts to normalize ties after decades of Cold War opposition.

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