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New Orleans airport open to Cuba flights

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:00 PM EDT, Wed October 12, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Plans for specific flights at the airport are still in the works
  • This year the U.S. government said the airport could host Cuba flights
  • "It's opening up my country," a Cuban expatriate in Louisiana says
  • Restrictions will apply to travelers, the airport says

(CNN) -- An airport in New Orleans has received approval to join the ranks of U.S. airports hosting flights to and from Cuba, officials said Wednesday.

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport received permission from the Cuban government, "the final step in the approval process for launching direct flight service from New Orleans to Cuba," airport officials said in a statement Wednesday.

This year the U.S. government loosened restrictions, allowing the New Orleans airport and other international airports in the United States to apply to host flights to and from the island nation. Previously, charter flights to Cuba flew out of airports in New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

"We don't actually have the airplanes, but this just provides another opportunity, another avenue for private industry to build those flights or maybe citizens in the community to enjoy the benefits of those flights," airport spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut told CNN affiliate WGNO.

Travel to Cuba from the airport "will be restricted to 'purposeful' travel, the airport's statement said. That means passengers must have close relatives in Cuba, must be involved in the medical or agricultural business sectors, or must be traveling for educational or religious activities.

Alina Fernandez of Cuba Travel USA in Metairie, Louisiana, told WGNO she was thrilled by what she called a historic decision.

"It's opening up ... my country, which makes me very happy," she said. "I'm completely against the embargo. I think that's something that should have been removed. We've been having an embargo for over 50 years and there's been no change, so I think it's time for new change."

Earlier this year, the White House announced it would allow more academic, cultural and religious travel to Cuba, and would pave the way for more airports to service flights to Cuba.

The longstanding U.S.-imposed trade embargo and travel restrictions on Cuba were intended to pressure the communist nation and its leaders to move toward democracy.

This year the Department of Homeland Security announced its approval of 12 additional airports to provide passenger air service between the United States and Cuba, according to an August report from the Congressional Research Service. That brought the total number of airports approved to 15, the report said.

"It is uncertain how many of these airports actually will end up handling flights to and from Cuba," the report said.

Direct flights to Havana from Tampa, Florida, began last month. On September 8, the first commercial flight between the two cities in nearly 50 years was sold out, Tampa International Airport said in a statement.

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