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Traveling aboard Southwest 3952, first commercial flight from Tampa to Cuba in five decades

By Paul Guzzo
Photos by PAUL GUZZO | Times
Passengers don commemorative fedoras and pins on Southwest Airlines Flight 3952 on Monday from Tampa International Airport to Havana’s Jos? Mart? International Airport. “It’s very exciting,” said Daima Canco, a Cuban-born, 52-year-old Tampa woman.

HAVANA, Cuba — The green island appeared below before passengers knew they were in Cuban airspace.

Then came the buzzing of mobile phone warnings: Shut off the data plan or start paying by the minute if someone calls from home.

This wasn't an issue the last time a commercial airline flew from Tampa to Cuba, more than five decades ago. Passengers back then got word of their arrival in more traditional ways.

But so did this group of 175 travelers on Southwest Airlines Flight 3952.

"Welcome to Havana, Cuba," the flight attendant announced.

On Monday morning, with a flight from 6:15 to 7:30, Tampa joined the 10 American cities offering regular commercial flights to Havana. A deal was signed in February by the U.S. and Cuban governments to restart the service, part of the efforts by the Obama administration to normalize relations between the countries.

Once the plane landed, the first passenger to set foot in Havana was Daima Canco, a Cuban-born, 52-year-old Tampa woman who has lived in Florida nearly 30 years.

"It's very exciting," said Canco, who has traveled to Cuba on charter flights through the years. She was not here to make history, as were many Tampa dignitaries aboard the sold-out flight. Canco just wanted to see her family again, but the Cuban media approached her anyway.

"I feel special," Canco said with a laugh. Then with toy trucks in hand for her 7-year-old cousin, she walked into Havana's José Martí International Airport.

According to the Cuban government, some 150,000 Americans visited the island nation in 2015, up from around 90,000 in 2014. And through the first half of 2016 alone, the number grew to 137,000.

Now, with the new commercial flights, even more people are expected to travel because tickets are as little as half the cost of a charter flight, they can be refunded or transferred easier, and they can be purchased online and with frequent flier miles.

Southwest flies seven days a week from Tampa to Havana at an introductory price of $150 round trip.

Among those on board Monday were a number of advocates for improved relations with Cuba, including Albert Fox, founder of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation; businessman Manny Fernandez, who has been working to open a distribution warehouse in Havana; and Patrick Manteiga, publisher of La Gaceta newspaper in Ybor City.

They landed to find a Havana much changed in the past five years. The capital city still appears stuck in time, with centuries-old buildings and vintage automobiles, but a cab ride into town also revealed many newer cars alongside the old ones and once-decrepit buildings now restored. The music of the Backstreet Boys filled the cab.

For passengers, the trip started as early as 3:30 a.m. at Tampa International Airport with a glance at the digital Departures board, where Havana now is squeezed between Hartford and Houston. They were greeted by a party with cake and commemorative fedoras and pins.

Staff members at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter couldn't hide their first-day jitters over the flight. They had to document why each passenger was going to Cuba because it is still illegal to visit Cuba for purely tourism. Each traveler must list one of 12 designated reasons, such as education or research.

The Southwest staff also had to remind everyone to keep their ticket stubs as proof they carry the Cuban government-issued health insurance that comes with the $150 price of the round-trip ticket.

Few of the VIPs aboard had any official business to tend. They just wanted to be part of history.

One was retired judge E.J. Salcines, a student of the long history between Tampa and Cuba. The last time Salcines visited was July 1959, shortly after Fidel Castro rose to power. It was a 90-minute flight on National Airlines.

One of the stops he planned this day was the University of Havana.

Worth noting, Salcines said, is that Spanish settlers built the first university in Havana in the 1520s — and the lumber came from along the Hillsborough River.

"We go back that far," he said. "Amazing, isn't it?"

But those who worked to land Tampa the Havana flights, lobbying the U.S. Department of Transportation, now question whether they'll last.

President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month and has promised to roll back President Barack Obama's Cuba initiatives.

"When Obama was elected, they sold a lot of guns," Manteiga of La Gaceta said with a chuckle. "When Trump is elected, they will sell a lot of tickets to Cuba. Some worry this might not continue so they want to go now."

Still, Manteiga said, he is advising fellow passengers to enjoy the moment.

"I can't worry too much about what happens the next day with Cuba over this policy we have. Take gains when you can get them."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] [email protected].