FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - There was a grandmother, a lunch truck operator and even a Chihuahua aboard when the first charter flight from Fort Lauderdale to Cuba since 1987 took off around 1 p.m. Saturday, wet from a water salute.
Passengers brought literally tons of baggage with them, with many carrying canned food, shoes, clothing and medicine to family and friends on the island. Charter organizer Airline Brokers Co. said it filled only 110 seats of the 150 available in order for the flight to accommodate the extra weight of all the luggage.
Cuban-American grandmother Clara Ramos, 76, of Pompano Beach, wore two bracelets, two watches and a pendant necklace to lighten the weight and cost of her check-in bags stuffed with gifts. She was glad to fly from an airport closer to home than Miami, the only South Florida option for Cuba charters for decades.
"I'm happy," said Ramos, before boarding Flight 8605 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. "To get here took me just 15 minutes. To Miami, it's about an hour. And this airport is more peaceful, less noisy. Plus, the treatment today for this first flight — it was magnificent, so original."
Organizers regaled passengers on the inaugural charter with straw hats, maraca shakers, cake, Cuban pastries and live music from a two-man band that played traditional Cuban tunes. The check-in and boarding areas also sported white and blue balloons, some stamped with the Cuban flag.
"It's a historic day," said Vivian Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers Co., who donned a scarf that looked like Cuba's red, white and blue flag. "For Cuban-Americans who live from Hialeah to West Palm Beach, this is an easier ride. And when we get groups visiting Cuba on people-to-people-tours, Fort Lauderdale will be cheaper for airline connections than Miami."
The chance to fly on a plane leased from JetBlue, known for leather seats, ample leg room and TV screens behind each seat, was a top draw for Madelin Alonso, 38, of Hialeah. She was traveling with her husband, two daughters and friends.
Alonso said she often flies JetBlue from Fort Lauderdale for U.S. trips.
"JetBlue is more comfortable," Alonso said. She also chose the Fort Lauderdale charter because of its price: $30 cheaper than Miami fares. The cost was $379 round-trip per person.
But lunch truck operator Gilberto Hernandez, 45, of Miami, wasn't sure he'd make the trek north again. Airline Brokers charged $35 to check a first bag and $45 for a second bag of up to 70 pounds in Fort Lauderdale. In Miami, on a different charter company, he gets the first 44 pounds free.
"We paid $235 for baggage. That's at least $35 more than we'd pay in Miami," said Hernandez, a frequent traveler to Cuba who was flying down with his wife. The couple planned to return to Miami on Sunday after dropping off food, clothing and even a flat-screen TV to their family and friends.
One of the few non-Cubans traveling was Martha Tauriz, an Ecuadorean naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
She cuddled her Chihuahua named Lilo for her first trip to Cuba, where she was to meet the family of the boyfriend who lives with her in Coconut Creek. Federal law allows U.S. citizens who share the same roof with Cuban-Americans to join them on trips to see their family on the island.
Washington's four-decade-old embargo bars most Americans from spending dollars in Cuba in a move to stifle funds to the island's communist-led government, effectively banning most U.S. travel there.
But U.S. trips are allowed for Cuban-Americans visiting family, for special categories of travelers including researchers and journalists, and most recently, under the Obama administration, for licensed "people-to-people" tours aimed to strengthen ties with Cuban citizens, not the Cuban government.
For Cuban-American truck driver Julio Delgado, the Saturday flight offered a chance to visit his 84-year-old mother in Havana, who recently broke her hip. The 60-year-old Aventura resident carried along two large suitcases filled with such gifts as powdered milk, canned fish, canned chicken and sneakers — items in short supply or considered expensive on the island.
"To spend time with the family," Delgado said, "that's the most important thing there is."