Published in April 2016 issue

By Seth Miller

Catching a ride on an Ilyushin IL-96 is no easy feat. With only 29 built since its rollout in the late 1980s, the IL-96 is rightly considered a rarity. Since Aeroflot (SU) parked its fleet of five, and besides the Russian government, Cubana (CU) is the sole commercial operator still flying the aircraft. With just three destinations—Buenos Aires (EZE), Madrid (MAD) and Paris (ORY)—opportunities are indeed limited.

So, faced with the need to get from Miami (MIA) to Paris, I chose the much less direct but much more interesting route via Havana (HAV). Not only would I be flying on this rare aircraft but I would do so in style, choosing to pay the extra couple of hundred dollars over the Economy Class fare to experience Clase Tropical, Cubana’s Business Class offering.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, Cubana seemed to be regularly taking the IL-96 out of operations, likely for maintenance. Although I had no desire to fly across the Atlantic on a wet-leased Boeing 767, that was starting to seem a distinct possibility. On arrival at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, I was therefore ecstatic to see the aircraft’s distinctive tail fin sticking up at the far end of the terminal. Secure in the knowledge that I was going to get the joy ride I had planned for, I headed inside the terminal to begin my voyage.

For a major international gateway, Havana is relatively small and most of its long-haul service is not daily. On this particular Saturday night, the evening departure bank offered up five flights: two each to Paris and Madrid plus one to Moscow. This led to long lines snaking through the check-in area, which made me appreciate the first real value of my Club Tropical ticket; like other airlines, Cubana offers a dedicated lane for Premium passengers at the check-in desks. However, convincing the carrier that I was actually allowed to use that lane was an entertaining exercise. After showing my ticket confirmation and passport to the reluctant agents, I was given my boarding pass and then sent to the ticketing window across the terminal to collect my lounge access pass. Simply presenting my boarding pass would not have granted me admission, and the agents at the check-in counter did not have the required chit. Maybe they were just being ornery and having a bit of fun with the gringo. A less-than-spectacular passenger experience, but still far better than waiting in line.

Despite the large number of travelers moving through the facility, the immigration and security checks were a relatively smooth experience. Once inside, I skipped the duty-free shopping and made my way to the aforementioned lounge. I’m still not convinced that that was the best choice. The lounge was crowded and dingy, though the smoking room in the back had plenty of seats available. Water, beer, and liquor were available and I managed to imbibe a decent amount of rum to help with the upcoming flight. The meager selection of snacks offered slim pickings of questionable meats and fruits; it was a less than ideal situation. Out in the terminal, the options were not much better. Fortunately, I had only about an hour to spend before the flight was called for boarding.

The first few minutes on board a new aircraft are always special. In this case, it was even more so for me because I quickly found myself at odds with the crew. Boarding was through the door at 2L and my seat was behind the boarding door. I was keen to explore the rest of the plane and immediately moved to go into the forward zone, at which point, I hit a roadblock. The Flight Attendants (FA) would not permit me to proceed with my exploration; indeed, no one was allowed into the aircraft’s forward space throughout the flight. I still have no idea of what was to be found in that part of the plane but I know that they were being very serious about keeping passengers out.

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Clase Tropical takes up two rows of recliner seats in a 2-2-2 arrangement. On my flight, only six of the 12 seats were taken by regular passengers. Four were occupied by off-duty crew and two by diplomatic couriers; suffice it to say that their bags got priority in the overhead bins, complete with padlocks and wax seals. The air vents are in the seat, not overhead; in the case of Business Class, that means minimal air flow, as the vent is too far away and angled wrong as soon as the other passenger reclines. But this was the least of the challenges posed by the seats.

A personal in-flight entertainment screen (IFE) is to be found in the seat arm. Alas, it showed nothing more than a plain blue screen throughout the flight. Somewhat surprisingly, the seat’s power outlet did work correctly. When the time came to recline my seat and extend the leg rest, I was stymied. I looked across the aisle and noticed the couriers laughing at my efforts as they relaxed with their legs resting on their carry-on bags. It seems that the broken leg rests are a feature, not a bug. Fortunately, the pitch is sufficient for this arrangement to work as it is.

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The Economy Class cabin has a relatively typical 3-3-3 layout with sufficient but not generous pitch. There are no overhead bins over the central seating section, leaving it with an airy, spacious feel. Fortunately, carry-on baggage was minimal, allowing sufficient space for all the passengers. Around 10 rows from the back of the plane was a most bizarre quirk: the floor angled slightly up towards the aft lavatories. This is the only aircraft I’ve ever been on in which the floor was not level throughout the cabin. Much like the cordoned-off area up front, I have no idea why it was set that way.

Speaking of the lavatories, they are only found at the back of the plane; there are none in the Clase Tropical area. However, Premium passengers need not worry, as one of the six lavs at the back is clearly labeled ‘Clase Tropical’; however, this proved to be less than useful, as it remained locked for the entire flight. Not that there was ever a line to use the lavs, but that was just one more thing to put on the list of quirks on this adventure.

Meal service was a mixed bag. My minimal Spanish and semi-passable French left me with only the simplest of choices for my dinner. “Fish, chicken or beef?” is where the FA left off, rather than try to explain the options. I chose the fish and was pleasantly surprised at the quality. My seatmate had the chicken, which appeared dry but not awful. The meal was served with slices of tomato and cucumber as well as a charcuterie plate and a dessert. I skipped the meats and the veggies while enjoying the rest of the meal and a couple more drinks. The pre-flight sparkling wine and the main course one were served in glassware; the other drinks—rum, vodka, or juices—came in tiny plastic cups. With the entire rear of the plane occupied by the lavatories, the Economy Class meal service originated from the galley in the Business section; this presented similar choices, but, from what I could see, no liquor was served and the main was the only course.

While dinner was passable, the breakfast decidedly was not. It was presented as a meat sandwich of sorts, plus yogurt and a fruit salad.

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I had a bite of the sandwich and immediately regretted it. The fruit salad was slimy and of an unfamiliar nature. Suffice it to say that my actual breakfast ended up being a pain au chocolat eaten in Orly after clearing immigration.

Despite the in-seat screens, the only entertainment offered in flight was shown on the overhead monitors. It was a loop of blurry shorts which appeared to be a video of a computer desktop playing a movie, recorded for the IFE and intermixed with flight progress details. At one point, I noticed that the speed indicator had us flying at 870kph, which is about right for the eastbound transatlantic hop. When the system display switched to imperial units, it indicated 470mph for that same measurement, rather than the more likely 540. Only mildly disconcerting, really.

So, how does a flight with no IFE, broken seats, and only one mediocre meal score in terms of overall travel experience? As a one-off trip, surprisingly high; I was in it for the aircraft, not the frills and, in that regard, it was spectacular. So many new eccentricities to uncover and explore. Were I to be flying the aircraft regularly the rating would quickly and surely be downgraded to: “I’ll do it—but only because it is way cheaper than the other options.”

A spectacular, unique travel experience. But not one I’m in any hurry to repeat.