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Next stop, Havana. Alaska Airlines begins flights to Cuba.

By Jessica Stugelmayer 12:03 PM January 5, 2017

While the borders to the small island nation near Florida have been open for commercial flights since February 2016, the inaugural Alaska Airlines flight took off from Los Angeles to Cuba Thursday morning.

Passengers on the Boeing 737 included 50 political, business and cultural leaders from California and Washington state, according to a release from the company. The group will be taking part in an “educational and trade mission” to learn more about Cuba.

John Binkley, president of the Cruise Lines International Association of Alaska, and his wife were among several Alaskans on board the commercial flight. Binkley said Capt. John Ladner and a flight attendant were also from Alaska.

John Binkley, far right, poses with pilots before taking off for Cuba from LA on Thursday.

John Binkley, far right, poses with pilots before taking off for Cuba from LA on Thursday.

The celebration prior to the flight included a four-piece band and balloons that spelled out “HAV” — the code for the José Martí International Airport southwest of Havana.

Alaska Airlines applied to begin flying to Cuba in March 2016, after U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Cuban Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez signed the air agreement. In August, the company got approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation to launch service to Cuba, and a month later, Alaska announced plans for daily flights from LA to Havana.

In a release, Alaska Airlines stated Thursday’s trip to Cuba is not its first-ever flight to the nation. In the 1970s, the company flew charter flights to the base at Guantanamo Bay.

It is important to note that while commercial flight to Cuba is allowed, travel to the country is still restricted. The U.S. government doesn’t currently allow Americans to visit Cuba strictly for tourism — a trip needs to fall into one of 12 categories which include family visits, official government business, professional research and meetings, as well as educational activities.

Alaska Airlines has information including flight times and required travel documentation on its website.

The company also recently completed its acquisition of Virgin America airlines, a deal that will bring changes to the corporate culture for employees as well as mileage plans and benefits for consumers.

To those amenities, Alaska can now add direct service to sunshine, mojitos and Cuban cigars.

Jessica Stugelmayer can be reached via emailFacebook and Twitter.

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