Historic commercial flight from US lands in Cuba

Passengers of JetBlue flight 387 arrive at the airport in Santa Clara, Cuba on Aug. 31. JetBlue 387, the first commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba in more than a half century, landed in the central city of Santa Clara, re-establishing regular air service severed at the height of the Cold War.

Associated Press

U.S. Rep. John Katko's push to pause U.S. commercial flights to Cuba until a security assessment of Cuban airports is completed has been backed by two U.S. senators, including former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

Rubio, R-Florida, and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, have introduced Katko's Cuban Airport Security Act in the Senate. 

The measure would prohibit U.S. commercial flights to Cuba, which resumed last week, until a security review is conducted at all of Cuba's last-point-of-departure airports. 

Katko, R-Camillus, introduced the bill in July after concerns were raised about the security equipment and personnel available at Cuba's airports. The Transportation Security Administration has since said that Cuban airports meet security standards, but Katko and other critics are skeptical. 

"With so many serious security threats around the world, it is irresponsible to leave key aspects of our airport security in the hands of the anti-American, repressive regime in Cuba," Rubio said in a statement. 

U.S. and Cuban officials reached an agreement earlier this year to resume commercial air service. There will be up to 110 daily round-trip flights daily between the two countries. 

Last week, a JetBlue plane departed Fort Lauderdale, Florida and landed in Santa Clara, Cuba — the first commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba in more than 50 years. 

During an editorial board meeting with The Citizen, Katko detailed new concerns about air travel between the U.S. and Cuba. He said all of the employees at Cuban airports, including the clerks working for U.S. airlines, will be "communist government employees." 

Rubio, too, is worried that airlines operating flights between the two countries won't be permitted to hire their own staff to represent them at Cuban airports. 

"This increases the likelihood that someone on the inside seeking to harm the United States could gain access to sensitive flight data and controls," he said. "I have opposed commercial flight service to Cuba because it will only empower and enrich the regime, not the Cuban people." 

Menendez echoed that sentiment. 

"Since every Cuban airport worker is employed directly by the regime and its airports lack the technology and security capabilities we've grown to expect in the United States, I have serious concerns entrusting the Castro regime to protect the lives of Americans flying in and out of Cuba," he said. 

Menendez and Rubio have been leading voices on issues related to restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. Both men are children of Cuban immigrants. 

Katko lauded the senators for supporting his bill. He's hopeful that the measure will advance through Congress this year. 

"The Obama administration's rush to open regularly scheduled commercial air service between the United States and Cuba without taking proper precautions is negligent and I am optimistic that the House and Senate will move quickly on legislation to help address safety and security deficiencies," he said. 

Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer/politics reporter