From the cockpit to the seats in back, most everyone aboard Delta Flight 639 on Thursday wanted to be part of history.
“It’s an opportunity I didn’t think I’d ever have in my lifetime,” said Capt. Gus Loureiro, who commanded the flight from Atlanta to Havana, Cuba. Loureiro was born in Cuba but left in 1960 and had never been back until landing the big jet at Jose Marti International.
The veteran pilot was among employees with personal Cuban connections who were chosen to work Delta’s first scheduled Atlanta-Havana flight in 55 years, part of a wave of new U.S.-Cuba flights as relations thaw.
Delta also launched service to Cuba from Miami and New York Thursday.
The airline withdrew from the market in 1961 after the Cuban revolution and had only operated limited charters until now.
“It’s a very historic milestone day for us, as we return to Cuba,” Steve Sear, Delta’s president of international, said before Flight 639 left Hartsfield-Jackson International.
The Atlanta-Havana inaugural flight was only about half-full, however, with a number of passengers pulling out of the trip in the wake of the death of Fidel Castro and the declaration of a nine-day period of mourning in Cuba. They included members of a delegation that was to be led by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Those who stuck with their plans got a commemorative luggage tag, cigar, postcard and inaugural flight certificate. The plane got a water cannon salute as it taxied away from the gate about 11:20 a.m. In-flight cocktails during the two-hour trip included mojitos.
Travel restrictions still apply to Cuba, including a requirement that travel fall under one of 12 permitted categories such as people-to-people visits, family visits and professional meetings.
Loureiro said he would only be landing at the airport and then flying back, since long layovers in Cuba not yet allowed for crewmembers. But he hopes to return for a longer visit.
“This is wonderful that this is opening up now,” Loureiro said.
“I can’t tell you how proud an excited we are to be taking you to Cuba today,” he told passengers over the intercom. “It’s quite a big day.”
Flight attendant Alberto Garcia Uria also left Cuba as a child, in October 1960.
“I’m very excited about going back. It’s very emotional for me,” he said.
Garcia Uria said he and hundreds of other flight attendants submitted essays for the chance to help launch Delta’s return to Cuba.
“I’m kind of trying to keep from getting emotional,” Garcia Uria said before the flight departed. “I’m kind of at a loss for words.”
For passenger Mike Coughlan, traveling to Cuba was a chance to go somewhere that previously seeemed out of reach.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba and I knew it was difficult to get there,” said Coughlan, a geologist who lives in Midtown Atlanta. Originally from Miami, he said the idea of Cuba “was such a big part of my life growing up.”
Maria Eugenia de Bernard, of McDonough, hails from the island nation and eagerly booked a seat after the new service was announced.
“It’s an excellent opportunity for everyone who wants to see what Cuba is all about,” she said. “The Cuban community in Atlanta — everybody’s excited about this.”
Passenger Ralph Heid, from Charlevoix, Mich., said he wants to acquire books on Cuban history and culture for the University of Michigan library, where he volunteers.
To Heid, the re-opening of relations between Cuba and the United States is “long overdue. We’ve moved on a long way since the 1950s and 60s, and it’s time to have relations between two important countries in this area.”
“There may be some bumps in the road with the new [presidential] administration, but I don’t think it’s going to stop the inevitable warming of relations,” Heid said.
Kit Sutherland, who lives in Atlanta, was already a Cuba travel veteran, with 14 trips to her credit and years of advocacy for open relations.
“I’m thrilled to see Delta making this step,” said Sutherland, who traveled with her husband Stuart. “It’s a historic flight for Delta and for Cuba.”
Sutherland said she sees opportunities for local businesses.
“There’s so many companies here in Atlanta that would benefit from normalization of relations with Cuba,” including Delta, AT&T and Coca-Cola, she said.
At least one passenger, Roxana Lee, was a Cuba resident flying home after a trip to Salt Lake City. She called the new flights “better for all people — for Cuban people and other people, because we have family in the United States.”