Havana-bound New Yorkers boarded a sold-out flight to the communist island nation Tuesday morning — the first regular, direct-charter service from Kennedy Airport since President Obama in January announced an easing of Cuba travel restrictions.
Travelers said it’s far more convenient to no longer have to first journey to Florida to catch a charter flight.
“We used to have to fly to Miami and stay overnight because the flights never lined up,” explained Barbara D’Andrea, an elder with First Presbyterian Church in Bridgehampton, LI, who traveling on the Sun Country flight organized by Cuba Travel Services.
“We were pleased to learn that we could fly out of JFK,” said D’Andrea, traveling with eight congregants.
CTS will offer the flight once a week, on Tuesdays.
The Obama administration on Jan. 15 announced that travel to Cuba would be easier as the two nations heal their long-fractured relationship.
Travelers must still declare a purpose that fits into one of the 12 approved categories — including journalism, family visits and educational or religious activities — but most visitors no longer need to wait for a special license from the Treasury Department.
‘THIS IS THE EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME. I REALLY DIDN’T THINK I WOULD EVER GET TO SEE THE MOTHERLAND.’
– Claudia Valdez
“This is a good first step and we’re very happy we can fly directly to Cuba rather than having to grab a connecting flight,” said Juan Carlos Perez, 53.
“It makes things much easier.”
But he added that tickets were still expensive at $849 apiece — and hopes that one day travelers will be able to deal directly with the airlines.
A spokesperson for Cuba Travel Services said all 140 seats on the Boeing 737 flight had been sold.
The travel company already offers flights to Havana from Miami and Tampa — but said it has seen an uptick in demand since Obama relaxed the travel policy.
“It’s increased a lot,” said Emily Sanchez, director of marketing for CTS.
“Especially after the announcement the president made, more people are curious about visiting” the island.
Lupe Hobbs waited nearly six decades to return to her Cuban homeland.
The 68-year-old Queens mom now plans to reunite with her family for the first time since she was 10 years old, she said.
Lupe Hobbs (right) and her daughter Claudia ValdesPhoto: Ellis Kaplan
“My father came first, then my mom, then me. We never had the money to go back. And it used to be much more complicated,” said Hobbs, who flew out with her two daughters Tuesday.
“I don’t think it’s changed much since I left — we’ll see,” she said.
Her daughter Claudia Valdez, 47, added, “This is the experience of a lifetime. I really didn’t think I would ever get to see the motherland. Growing up, I heard about the music and how poor it was.”
She’s spreading art to the kids of Cuba.
Betty ParsonPhoto: Ellis Kaplan
Harlem photographer Betty Parson, 46, boarded a flight to Havana Tuesday to donate a suitcase full of art supplies to the Academia Bellas Artes.
She’ll be teaching youngsters art in Cuba this summer through the Artists Making Changes foundation.
“It’s a wonderful educational and cultural exchange for children and artists,” she said.
Parson will travel back to Cuba next month to prepare for the program.
“We normally carry 400 to 500 pounds of art supplies that we need to carry, so having a direct flight from JFK makes it easier for me,” she said.
He once fled Cuba — and now he’s flying back.
Raul Marfil, 78, escaped from the country as political refugee in 1980, leaving behind nine kids.
From left: Juan Carlos Perez, Rodolfo Arbolo, Irina Bravo and Raul MarfilPhoto: Ellis Kaplan
“I am not in favor of communism or the government in Cuba, that’s why I came here,” the Newark resident said Tuesday.
Marfil was allowed to fly to Cuba via Miami two years ago — but it was expensive and time consuming, he said.
“It’s cheaper this way and easier, but they need to have flights from Newark, too. I fly there quite frequently. Flying out of JFK is great. They should’ve had this option years ago,” he said Tuesday.