Editor’s note: As JetBlue’s tomorrow’s flight from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara will become the first regularly scheduled flights between the United States and Cuba in over 50 years, let’s fly back in time to 2013, when Chris Sloan wrote this retrospective story about Cuba, its capital city Havana, the state of Cuban commercial aviation, Jose Martí Airport and Cubana de Aviacion, the flag carrier of the island.
Stay tuned to our social feeds! your Airways team will be onboard JetBlue’s flight to Santa Clara, covering the details of this historic flight.
MIAMI – For the first half of the 20th Century, particularly beginning during the U.S. Prohibition Era, Cuba was a playground for Americans where rum, gambling, and often-illicit activities flowed freely.
Our closest Caribbean neighbor and ally to the South was also a major trading partner with the United States with many U.S. major multi-national companies having interests in sugar, farming, and tourism throughout the country.
Havana, in particular was a sexy, and at times infamous place with exotic locales and attractions such as the Tropicana Night Club, Hotel Nacional, famed beaches, lively tropical music, and majestic old world architecture.
The world-renowned hospitality, warmth, and exuberant personalities of the proud Cuban people were and remain an enduring feature of the nation. The mob and its iconic figures such as Meyer Lansky as well as Ernest Hemmingway’s books only enhanced Cuba’s sexiness and notoriety. It was in many ways the so-called “Las Vegas of the Caribbean” before there was even the Las Vegas we know of today.
Cuba and the United States had very close ties from the very beginning of aviation as well. Pan Am’s first flight was between Key West and Havana in 1929. Many other U.S. airlines spirited passengers, businessman, and cargo to Havana:
Delta (via New Orleans), Braniff (via Houston), Pan Am (offering flights to Miami, Merida Mexico, San Salvador, and Jamaica), National (via Miami), Eastern (via Miami), and other smaller carriers such as Mackey (via Miami).
Founded in 1930, Cuba’s national airline, Cubana, was once partially supported by Pan Am and frequently flew daily flights to Miami and New York Idlewild first using DC-3s, DC-4s, Lockheed Constellations, Vickers jet-prop Viscount 318s and Bristol Britannias.
For the citizens of Cuba, these were the best and the worst of times. Under an oppressive and corrupt dictatorship led by Batista who was supported by the American Government, there were a few “haves” but many “have nots”.
When Fidel Castro came to power on New Year’s Day 1959, many Cubans cheered at the prospect of change. No one really knew at the time just exactly what profound changes would come shortly after to this remarkable country.
When the arguably even more brutal Castro regime began moving closer to Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, then nationalized all private businesses (including the foreign interests), and confiscated personal property, many Cubans and Americans fled the nation.
Many felt at the time that this would be a short-term regime, not one that would be led by one of the longest lasting leaders in modern history. Many Cubans sadly lost everything they had and never returned to their homeland again. Those that were fortunate enough to have survived the Castro regime lost most of their personal property, businesses, homes, and especially their already limited freedom.
The United States began limiting travel to Cuba shortly after the Revolution in 1959. Diplomatic relations were broken off in 1961, and following the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, travel and trade restrictions were officially imposed under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
An embargo on all business with the Communist island nation went into effect, and has endured for 60 years. Apart from humanitarian flights such as the ‘Pedro Pan’ flights of the mid 1960s where children were allowed to leave Cuba for the United States; occasional relief flights, limited flights for Cubans to visit home, and a short time during the years under President Jimmy Carter, when restrictions were loosened for educational, religious, and cultural exchanges were allowed, travel to the island nation has been virtually off limits.
Following the often disastrous and tragic era of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, President Ronald Reagan once again made travel to Cuba off-limits to most Americans in 1982. For many, many years, the only U.S. airlines operating to Cuba were those whose airplanes were hijacked — a particularly frequent occurrence in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Technically, it is not illegal for Americans to actually travel to Cuba, but the U.S. government prohibits its citizens from spending money in the country unless they fall into one of the groups with legal reasons to go there. Lured by the “forbidden fruit” of Cuba, many Americans have illegally flown to Cuba via the Bahamas, Mexico, and Canada.
Those traveling illegally to Cuba run the risk of heavy fines and jail sentences through the Department of the Treasury. Though Cuba doesn’t stamp U.S. passports, there are many ways the United States government can detect travel to Cuba including access to airline’s reservation systems.
As Communism fell through the 1990s, Cuba lost the Soviet Union as its primary trading partner and ally. The country’s already precarious economic position plunged to an abyss. Its few remaining exports of sugar, tobacco, and mining faltered as its manufacturing equipment and infrastructure withered away.
This era called the “Special Period” was an era of extreme suffering for a people who had already suffered so much. Yet with nowhere else to turn and out of survival, this isolated pariah of a nation made tentative steps to open up and look to the west.
The country once again opened its doors to tourism, with Spanish, Mexican, and Canadian interests particularly becoming involved in re-establishing the industry. After almost 50 years in power, Fidel Castro resigned his official presidency in 2006 to his brother Raul Castro.
The younger Castro began to take small steps to modernize the economy, its infrastructure, and trade. Still, the nation remains firmly in Communism’s grasp even as Raul has identified his successor.
Cuba’s positives include its high literacy rates, high level of education, strength in the medical sciences, and the ingenuity of its people. Up to 25% of its economy is reportedly to be due to aid from Cuba’s main ally, Venezuela. But with the death of President Hugo Chavez, a socialist and Bolivarian who worshipped the Castro regime, this too is tenuous.
Nevertheless, with policy changes under the Obama Administration, the U.S. Treasury Department has begun granting so called “people-to-people” licenses which allow American citizens who don’t have special status as students or journalists to visit for humanitarian, educational, religious, and cultural reasons.
These trips, not without controversy, are designed as cultural exchanges, not as beach vacations. Marazul Tours is one of the authorized companies specializing in these excursions. Miami, and secondarily Ft Lauderdale, remain the main gateways to travel to Cuba, but departure points have now been extended to Atlanta, New York JFK, Houston, Los Angeles, and Tampa.
Cuban Americans visiting family are still the most frequent travelers between the United States and Cuba. In 2011, an estimated 400,000 Americans visited Cuba both legally and illegally, up from 250,000 in 2010.
This is a surprisingly large portion of the 2.5 million annual visitors to Cuba. These are predominantly tourists from Canada and Europe who are drawn to this relatively inexpensive tropical paradise, with its wealth of culture, history, hospitality, and budding resort industry. Americans, however are barred from these resorts, and are discouraged from even visiting the beaches.
A Glimpse behind the Coconut Curtain
As a resident of Miami (sometime called Havana North), an aficionado of Cuban culture, a global wanderer and well, let me just say it “A Wandering Jew”, I had always had a fascination to visit this off-limits Island.
When my synagogue Temple Beth Shalom in Miami Beach organized a humanitarian and cultural exchange trip, my wife and I leaped at the chance. The story of our 6-day trip to Cuba is one left for another post, and one difficult to put concisely into words.
It is a bittersweet experience of paradoxes and contradictions. On one hand, it is fascinating and beautiful. On the other hand, it’s tragic, sad, and desperate. Two things stood out the most: Traveling to Cuba is indeed stepping back in time, and not just because half the cars on the road are pre-1959 “Detroit Steel.” Second, the people, in spite of all they have endured, remain warm and full of passion.
We never once felt unsafe or unwelcome, except by two aggressive customs officers on the way out of the country. Sixty minute private interrogations, even if eventually communicated to me as “routine”, are never fun, especially in a country that’s still a police state. But back to the positives, as an affirmed AvGeek, the experience of flying to Cuba nonstop from Miami and a visit to José Martí International Airport were of almost equal attraction in anticipation and in hindsight.
The actual flight-time to Cuba from wheels-up to wheels-down is about 42 minutes, traversing less then 300 miles from Miami to Nassau. Regardless of how you’re flying there, it is definitely a “Flux Capacitor” time machine experience, made even more profound by the short time aloft to get there. Due to all the customs clearances, luggage screening, and restrictions, travelers are asked to be at the airport 4 hours prior to departure.
There are very strict rules regarding the weight of your luggage. Any checked luggage exceeding 48 pounds is subject to a $2 per pound charge. Many Cubans, Cuban-Americans, and humanitarians bring items to the island from the mundane: medicine, clothes, computers, DVD players, etc to the surreal: tires, boat engines, and car parts.
These are all weighed and if exceeding weight, charged for, on the way out unless they are carry-on luggage. This makes for very unusual TSA and immigration screenings.
Unsurprisingly, there can be multiple screenings, searches, and questions due to the unusual nature of these flights.
However, the TSA staff I encountered were very courteous and sensitive to the dispositions of the passengers. The ticket counter is often a mob scene of confused and nervous first time flyers, entourages of emotional relatives and passengers bidding farewell, and anxious passengers not sure what to expect. This is not a traditional flight to a sun-drenched Caribbean destination after all.
There are a number of carriers flying from Miami nonstop to Havana: American Airlines (using Boeing 737-800s), American Eagle (Embrarer E-145s), Sky King (using ex Alaska 737-400s), I.B.C. (using Saab 340s for Cargo), Miami Air (using Boeing 737-800s), and World Atlantic offer up to 15 charter flights a day to Havana and other Cuban Destinations.
World Atlantic and Sky King alone operate up to 4 round-trips per day between Miami and Havana, where there’s demand.
JetBlue flies some charters from Ft. Lauderdale. Our time machine of the day is itself a winged one — an elderly World Atlantic, ex-Spanair MD-83. Miami-based World Atlantic operates three MD-82/83s on charters around the U.S. and Caribbean but the Miami – Havana shuttle is its busiest route. Most Cuban flights originate from the former Pan Am/American Airlines “High E” gates at Miami International Airport.
The trepidation and at the same time nervous excitement on passengers’ faces is palpable as we prepare for our 08:30 departure. It is a relatively uneventful process as we board the “Mad Dog” bound for Havana. As many passengers were first time flyers, there was an added explanation of the safety briefing and how to buckle a seatbelt. You could see the apprehension on many of their facial expressions.
The flight departed 20 minutes late, but all things considered this is an “on-time” departure. While en-route World Atlantic conducted a drink service that would be the last time we would taste U.S. beverages such as Coca-Cola and Sprite before our return flight. One of the three flight attendants told us this was her first flight, and was excited for it to be Havana, even though U.S. flight crew aren’t allowed in the terminal, don’t lay-over, and immediately turn-around.
In fact, no fuel, water, or service provisions are taken on in Havana for the Miami – Havana flights.
Our flight path takes us down the Florida Keys as we climb to 25,000 feet, where we level off at cruise for about six minutes. Our MD then turned due south just east of Key West and began its descent as we were only as the saying goes “90 miles to Cuba”.
We approached the coastline and overshot the airport heading south over the northwest and deforested part of island, before turning back north for our final approach into José Martí.
In contrast to our arrival back in America a week later, our arrival in Havana was surreal and somewhat somber. Our World Atlantic pilots executed a nice grease job landing onto HAV’s single 13,312-foot runway 06/24.
The Cubana mural on the side of the hangar featuring a weapon-wielding revolutionary posing with the Russian-built fleet is another indicator that we have arrived to an alien land. Our MD-83 then passed the bizarre International Terminal 3, which on this Sunday afternoon has absolutely no aircraft on any of its gates.
Just before turning into Terminal 2, we noticed an Aerocaribbean cargo/passenger Ilyushin IL-18D, parked on the tarmac receiving attention. Aerocaribbean, based in Havana, flies mainly domestic and regional services using ATR-42s, ATR-72s, and Embraer EMB-110 Banderirantes for its passenger flights. The only western-built wide-body present is a Blue Panorama Boeing 767-300 that is reportedly leased to Cubana.
Their active fleet consists of 3 Ilyushin Il-96-300s, and 4 Tupolev Tu-204s. The Boeing 757 look-alike Tu-204s were first delivered in 2007; two in passenger and two in cargo configuration. Cubana was the first operator of the Il-96 outside of Russia.
Cubana also recently just ordered three Il-96-400s, in conjunction with a deal forgiving some of Cuba’s debt to Russia. Cubana operates western aircraft as well, including four Airbus A320-200s. Iberia assists in maintaining their western-built aircraft.
The flag carrier of Cuba also operated wet-leased AOM Douglas DC-10s in the fairly recent past. Cubana operated up to 28 Il-62 and Il-62Ms between 1979 and 2011. The Yak-40 and 42s have also been retired.
We blocked in to the specially designated U.S. Terminal 2; adjacent to us is an American Eagle ERJ-145. As there are no jetways at Terminal 2, we deplaned right on to the ramp via air stairs — an AvGeek bonus!
Despite being warned that the authorities don’t exactly condone plane spotting or photography at the airport, no one seems to mind as we snap away pictures at all the exotic aluminum on the ramp. The arrivals and baggage hall has all the order of a Moroccan bazaar, but we easily breezed through customs.
The Cuban immigration and customs officer is very friendly, offers us a warm “Bienvenido to Cuba!” Our passports are examined but not stamped. Outside, there is an absolute chaotic throng of humanity, making me think this is what Saigon Airport must have felt like before the fall of South Vietnam.
Our eyes immediately turn to all the 1950s U.S. classic cars in varying states of roadworthy condition. Wow! We really have stepped back in time to Cuba.
Let’s begin our tour of José Martí International with a little bit of history. Havana Airport opened in 1930. It was the second airport serving Havana replacing Havana Columbia Airport (where Pan Am flew its first flight).
It was first named “Rancho Boyeros”, meaning “(Bull) Drover Ranch,” named after the region where the airport was built.
It was later renamed after José Martí, the famed Cuban liberator who is still admired today. Cubana flights began later that year using a Ford Trimotor to Santiago de Cuba on the east side of the island via Santa Clara, Moron, and Camaguey.
Cubana flew the first international flight from Havana in 1945, which was to Miami.
In the same year IATA, the International Air Transport Association, was founded in Havana. Trans-Atlantic services followed in 1948 when Cubana began service to Madrid using two Douglas DC-4s, in the so-called “Route of the Stars,” the first commercial transatlantic crossing in the South Atlantic.
The United States carrier’s influx of service began in the late 1940s and 1950s. They were joined by other international airlines: Iberia, KLM, Costa Rica’s LACSA, Mexicana, and Linea Aeropostal Venezolana.
In 1958, Cubana became the first airline to operate all of its international aircraft with jet-prop aircraft using the Bristol Britannia 318s. They ordered two Boeing 707s and an additional option for a third aircraft. However, owing to the later embargo, it never took delivery of them and eventually turned to Russian built equipment and Air Canada-leased DC-8s.
Following the Revolution and the embargo against Cuba, regular flights by U.S. carriers were discontinued in 1961. An U.S. Douglas A-26 Invader from Brigade 2506 bombed the airport, two days before the CIA’s failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Cuba’s relationship grew much closer to the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc and rogue nations. U.S. destinations such as New York and Miami were replaced by Moscow, Warsaw, East Berlin, and Angola. U.S. airlines were replaced by Eastern Bloc airlines such as Aeroflot, CSA Czechoslovakia, Interflug of East Germany, and LOT Polish Airways.
With the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union beginning in 1989, these airlines and their government support began to abandon Cuba, leaving Cubana as the main player here. Mexicana, Aeromexico, Air Jamaica, Varig, Viasa, Iberia, Cayman Airways, Bahamasair, and other Latin American carriers stepped in to fill the void, even though the tourism infrastructure was basically non-existent.
There are four terminals currently in use at Havana: T1, T2, T3, and T5. Traveling between terminals, especially to the distant Terminal 1, means taking a long shuttle bus that exits the airport grounds into the surrounding traffic of the city, which still includes horse-drawn carts. International to domestic connections is anything but seamless.
Terminal 1, the oldest terminal at Havana, used to be the main international and domestic terminal. Used mainly for domestic flights by airlines such as Aerocaribbean, Aerogaviota, and Cubana, this brightly painted blue and yellow terminal looks virtually untouched from the 1950s. It is a true retro treat with the original ATC Control Tower cab on top.
Terminal 2 was built in 1988 and renovated and expanded in 2010. This “newer” terminal however doesn’t seem much more modern then Terminal 1. T2 is used for international charters, mainly the flights to the U.S. that began in earnest around 1988. Outside the terminal are snack bars and the chaotic scene of traffic and swarms of people.
Passengers aren’t allowed into the terminal without tickets, nor within two hours of flight time. Due to the nature of the traffic here, passengers often travel with entourages to the airports resulting in emotional welcome and farewells. Once through customs and immigration, passengers endure a single, large crowded departure hall with multiple gates.
The terminal boasts few amenities beyond a snack bar, a bookstore, duty-free shops, and an austere VIP lounge upstairs. The architecture and experience is decidedly dated, utilitarian, but the A/C functions very well, which is welcome. Arrivals and Departures are on the same level as there are no jet bridges.
Located adjacent to Terminal 2 is Terminal 3. T3, inaugurated in 1998 and built by a Canadian company, is the main International terminal. It is the largest and most modern of all the terminals, but is architecturally one of the strangest looking terminals I have ever seen. Looking like something out of a North Korean sci-fi movie (if there is such a thing) with a strong hint of 1980s steel and glass, this bizarre upside down cake of a building means one can only ask oneself, “what were they thinking?”
There are the typical three levels with arrivals; baggage claim, customs, and Immigration are on the lower level. On the main level, is ticketing and a bizarre mix of shops and kiosks. National carrier Cubana dominates one-side of the facility. With no electronic or Internet ticketing kiosks, this scene is a mad house. The Cubana ticket counters do feature AvGeek cool murals of its Russian-built aircraft.
Cubana’s international destinations in Europe, Latin America, North America, and Europe include Bogota, Buenos Aires, Cancun, Caracas, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Madrid, Montreal, and Toronto.
A classic 1960s looking departures board dominates the central part of the ticketing hall. On the other side are the shared ticketing counters of the international carriers, which was in contrast absolutely empty during my visit.
Panama’s COPA is the busiest international operator at Havana.
Other international airlines servicing Havana include Air Canada, Aeroflot, Air Europa, Air France, Avianca, Bahamasair, Blue Panorama, Cayman Airways, Condor, InterJet, KLM, Lacsa, Lan Peru, TACA, TAME, and Virgin Atlantic, which flies Boeing 747-400s to London Gatwick.
The departures and gates are up an escalator (the only one I saw in Cuba) with a few shops, snack bars, and a tiny Virgin Atlantic lounge before security.
The terminal gates do have jet bridges, however. Terminal 3 does have the best plane-spotting at HAV as it faces the runway, even though you have to contend with shooting through several layers of glass.
Plane-spotting is very, very difficult at Havana. The airport is surrounded by high concrete walls and blocked by fences located far away from airfield operations. There are virtually no turn-offs to look at the neither airfield, nor are there any multi-level parking garages to view from as well. The best bet is truly from the terminals and departing/arrival aircraft.
Cuba and José Martí Airport are indeed a time warp but there are signs that things are modernizing, albeit very slowly. Whether you’re a plane-spotter or tourist or both, you will surely be fascinated but conflicted at the experience.
My advice is if you plan to make the trip, do it legally, but don’t delay because no one can predict the future, and in Cuba virtually nothing is predictable.