Cuba's Ambassador to the U.S. says ''Cuba is ready to expand bilateral relations on civil aviation based on mutual respect, professionalism and reciprocity'' as the first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the two countries in more than half a century was set to depart from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Rough Cut (no reporter narration).
ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) STORY: The first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the United States and Cuba in more than half a century was set to depart on Wednesday (August 31), opening another chapter in the Obama administration's efforts to open trade and travel with the former Cold War foe. The first of several U.S. carriers to begin serving Cuba in the coming months, JetBlue Airways Corp was due to fly from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Santa Clara, a central city known for its monument to revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Dignitaries spoke during a news conference at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida. "We welcome regular and chartered flights from 110 foreign companies in Cuba at 10 international airports," said Jose Cabanas, Cuba's Ambassador to the United States. "Cuba is ready to expand bilateral relations on civil aviation based on mutual respect, professionalism and reciprocity." U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes, other officials and journalists were set to travel on the 150-seat Airbus A320. Regular travelers, including some of Cuban descent, were to occupy nearly half the seats on a route that may be a commercial challenge, at least initially. Cuba and the United States began normalizing relations in December 2014 after 18 months of secret talks and have since restored full diplomatic ties. The countries had been hostile for more than five decades, since Fidel Castro ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 revolution that steered the island on a communist course and made it a close ally of the Soviet Union. Despite the opening, which has included a landmark visit to the Caribbean island by Obama in March, the U.S. president has been unable to persuade Congress to lift a longstanding trade embargo on Cuba. U.S. citizens are still prohibited from visiting as tourists, although there have long been exceptions to the ban, ranging from visiting family to business, cultural, religious and educational travel. The Obama administration has further eased the restrictions. A memorandum of understanding between Cuba and the United States will limit Havana flights to 20 round trips per day. U.S. officials have yet to announce a final decision on which companies will get those coveted routes.