MIAMI — On May 28, 2015, exactly one month after the iconic Eastern Air Lines relaunched, Airways was invited to spend a day flying the newly reborn carrier on its route from Miami (MIA) to Havana, Cuba (HAV).
Eastern presently flies up to two round trips to Havana each day on behalf of Miami-based Havana Air, a successful charter carrier in the US-Cuba market for 25 years. Miami Flights for the time being are operated using a single Boeing 737-800 (Spirit of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker • N276EA • MSN 35070 • LN 2115)
The carrier also serves Santa Clara and Camaguey on behalf of Havana Air from Miami. While Eastern provides all lift currently for Havana Air out of Miami, Air Key West operates the new Key West-Havana flights using Britten Norman BN-2T Turbine Islander.
Typically, for those flying to Cuba, check-in is required of up to four hours in advance. As we were traveling without luggage, we were asked to show up two hours before departure. What looked to be chaotic on first blush, it was actually very efficient as Havana Air completed the check in for 20 minutes.
Flight times to Cuba differ day to day. On our given Sunday, Flight 3146 was scheduled to leave Miami at 9:00. Boarding began promptly at 8:25 am from Gate G14.
With a load factor of nearly 100%, boarding was completed in less then 20 minutes. The G concourse at Miami is where most Cuban bound charter flights with the exception of American Airlines depart from.
In command of the flight were Captain Ron Garcia and Captain Hector Crocker. All new hire pilots through the fifth training class are all Captains. Both pilots previously flew for Miami Air and feel that Eastern already seems like a scheduled operation, with so many frequencies to Cuba per week already operating for Havana Air.
Our purser was Shelly Garrish. She was part of the first class of hires or the “cadre class,” and as so is considered the flight purser. Having worked before for Virgin America, she said to be “excited to start up a new airline. People are nostalgic about Eastern and we are stopped in the terminal all the time for photos of our new uniforms and for questions. We are a little family and it’s been a fun ride.” She is a fan of Eastern’s new uniforms, which were designed by local Miami designer Lisu Vega.
As we boarded, we were impressed with the “like new” clean condition of the aircraft. Economy seating is the slim-line type, not universally loved, but perfectly adequate for such a short flight, while first class seats are all-leather with a generous seat pitch. There is no similarity to the classic old Eastern-stripped patterns or internal branding, save for the safety cards and the lapel pins of flight attendants! As most luggage was checked, there was no competition for the overhead bins.
Door was closed at 08:51 local, and pushback took place 3 minutes later, running ahead of time. For a given moment the “Welcome aboard Eastern Air Lines” friendly crew message evoked distant memories, but… We are in 2015!
With a small fleet and high demand, operational integrity is very important to the new Eastern, thus all flights to Cuba carry four bilingual flight attendants in order to keep boarding process efficient, and help passengers — many of whom are taking their first flight, and a mechanic on board as well.
At 09:08, Eastern 3146 rocketed off Miami’s Runway 27, on the MNATE2 departure. Inflight, plantains and soft drinks were served in first class, and water in economy with any other beverages served on request.
All too soon, descent began over the Straits of Florida, with landing occurring on Runway 06 at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana at 09:52 local time, 44 minutes after departure. Many passengers clapped upon arrival, and some even attempted to stand up out of excitement, even though the airplane was on an active taxiway. Eastern 3146 blocked in at the Special Authority U.S. Charter Terminal at 09:56, for a travel time of one hour and two minutes gate to gate, and four minutes ahead of schedule.
Disembarking at Havana is also a nostalgic experience, using boarding stairs and no jetways. Clearing customs was swift, and we were all set and ready to explore Havana for a few hours.
Havana Air checked us in at Terminal 2 of Jose Marti International Airport. No surprises for us in the next service flight to Miami as the same airplane—and crew—welcomed us aboard. The 38-minute flight was uneventful and needless to say, it was an excellent service by our Eastern Air Lines crew.
The second Boeing 737-800 for Eastern Air Lines arrived in mid-July, featuring a single-class cabin configuration of 179 seats will take over flights to Cuba, while ship 276 will provide extra lift for Caribbean Airlines out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport through the Summer and Winter high seasons as it counts with a First Class cabin.
Since this flight took place, the United States and Cuba are heading towards the total resumption of scheduled air services. In December 2015, both countries reached reached a bilateral agreement to establish scheduled air services between the two nations for the first time in nearly 50 years.
To date, American, JetBlue and other airlines have applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to fly 20 daily routes to Havana, but so far the DOT has only granted a preliminary approval for the routes. The final approval is expected to take place later this year, and then these should be approved by the Cuban civil aviation authorities.
Frontier, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines also have received the approval from the DOT for non-Havana routes.
As the competition heats up for the Cuban market, Eastern and Havana Air’s partnership yields excellent service to the VFR and burgeoning new tourism market between Miami and Cuba. With the coming influx of more and more numbers of Americans into Cuba, and the easing of travel restrictions, Eastern and Havana Air are both placed in a position to thrive for the future.
Airways will be on board JetBlue’s first flight to Santa Clara on August 31. Follow our social media feeds for live coverage of this important event.