History of Cubana de Aviación

History of Cubana de Aviación

Cubana de Aviación S.A is Cuba's largest airline and flag carrier.


Early years

Cubana was established on 8 October 1929 as "Compañía Nacional Cubana de Aviación Curtiss", indicating its association with the Curtiss aircraft manufacturing company. It was one of the earliest airlines to emerge in Latin America. Cubana's predecessors were the "Compañía Aérea de Cuba", founded in 1919, and the "Compañía Aérea Cubana", founded in 1920 (both airlines flew out of Havana's Columbia Airport, which started operations in 1919). Those companies were dissolved soon after they started, however, due to the difficult economic conditions affecting Cuba (and many other nations) in the aftermath of World War I.

Cubana de Aviación Curtiss started services in 1930 with Curtiss Robin aircraft, followed by Sikorsky S-38 hydroplanes and Ford Trimotors. Hydroplane service linked the coastal mining areas in the eastern part of Cuba, while the land-based Curtiss Robin and Ford Trimotor aircraft served the major provincial cities. The Curtiss Aviation School, owned by the Curtiss airplane manufacturing company, had trained Cuban pilots starting in the 1910s, thus creating the expertise necessary for the emergence of Cubana. Among the early Cuban aviation aces was Agustín Parlá, a 1912 graduate of the Curtiss School, who had headed the "Compañía Aérea de Cuba" in 1919.

Visits to Cuba by famous aviators, and news about their exploits, favored Cubana's start-up. They generated interest in aviation and its commercial possibilities in Cuba, at a time when civil aviation was mostly a recreational activity. Among them were the Spanish-Cuban aviator Domingo Rosillo, who completed the first flight across the Strait of Florida (Key West to Havana) in 1913, French aviator Charles Nungesser in 1924, and the American Charles Lindbergh in his "Spirit of St. Louis" airplane in 1928. After Cubana's founding, the Spanish aviators Mariano Barberán and Joaquín Collar completed the first transatlantic flight from Spain to Cuba in 1933, followed in 1936 by the first Cuba-to-Spain (Havana-Seville) flight by Cuban aviator Antonio Menéndez Peláez in an open cockpit, single-engine airplane. These and other feats promoted interest in long-distance flight.

Pan American Airways (then known as Pan American Airways System or PAA) acquired Cubana in 1932, and the word Curtiss was deleted from the airline's name. Financial difficulties in the U.S.-based Curtiss aircraft manufacturing company, due to the deepening economic depression, partly motivated the sale. Cubana therefore became a subsidiary of Pan American Airways. At that time, Pan American had started to assemble a Latin American and Caribbean network, linking together air services in various nations with its own international routes in the Americas and the Caribbean. Pan American's own first-ever international scheduled service had started from Florida to Cuba in the 1920s (Key West-Havana). Acquiring Cubana therefore made sense to PAA's management as it expanded operations beyond Cuba toward the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Cuba's populist revolution of 1933 had little effect on Cubana and on Pan American's ownership of the airline. Despite the nationalist character of the new government which seized power from 1933 until 1940, Pan American's investment in Cubana was safeguarded. The economic depression of the 1930s did affect Cuba, but its impact on Cubana was not substantial. At the time, much of Cubana's revenue was derived from carrying mail for Cuba's postal service. Airline passenger traffic was very limited, due to the small capacity of aircraft in those times. Also, people who chose to travel by air were mostly a select elite. Air travellers within Cuba in the 1930s were mostly wealthy business people, well-paid professionals, or well-to-do individuals who could afford the relatively high fares.

Twin-engine Lockheed Electra L-10 aircraft joined Cubana's fleet in 1934, allowing the airline to extend its routes within Cuba. These aircraft, which were among the most advanced in their time, were part of Pan American's investment in Cubana. The Lockheed Electras allowed Cubana to expand its land-based operations, serving cities which previously had no access to scheduled airline service. The expansion of Cubana's routes was accompanied by the creation of Cuba's Civil Aviation School in 1936, headed by Cuban aviation ace Ramiro Leonard. The school trained many aviators who would join Cubana's operations. By 1940, Cubana's fleet had a total of 12 aircraft, all of which were used in the airline's growing domestic network.

The Lockheed Electras were followed by the Douglas DC-3 in 1944 and the Curtiss C-46 in 1946. As a subsidiary of Pan American Airways, Cubana's technical operations, aircraft livery, crews' uniforms and even the airline's logo closely followed those of Pan American (the PAA-style logo was retained until 1957). Cubana's route system within Cuba fed passengers to Pan American's international flights, providing connections through Havana. This relationship was similar to that of other Pan American Airways subsidiaries in Latin America, such as Mexicana de Aviación and Panair do Brasil.

In 1944 the name of the airline was changed to "Compañía Cubana de Aviación S.A." A majority share in the airline was then sold to Cuban investors in that year, with Pan American Airways retaining a 42% stake. Pan American had been expanding rapidly, acquiring or setting up subsidiaries throughout Latin America (and re-establishing its Pacific and North Atlantic services as the end of World War II approached), and needed to raise capital. This change in majority ownership marked Cubana's ascendance as a Cuban enterprise, and made the airline a source of national pride. From 1944, Cubana would remain a private enterprise supported primarily by domestic capital.

In 1944, the first International Conference on Civil Aviation was convened, which later would lead to the creation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, currently based in Geneva, Switzerland). Cuba was a participant in this conference and a founding member of ICAO, helping set the framework for international agreements that would rule civil aviation during the second half of the 20th century. In April 1945, the conference that created the International Air Transport Association (IATA) was held in Havana. Cubana became a founding member of IATA, and participated in the creation of that organization through its involvement with the Havana conference and the resulting accords. Both conferences and the organizations they spawned helped establish Cubana as an internationally recognized airline company.

During its first 16 years Cubana's scheduled services were exclusively domestic. Its route system used Havana as its main hub, with frequent flights to the nation's major provincial cities. Cubana's founding in 1929 had coincided with the opening of Havana's José Martí International Airport, allowing the airline to establish a permanent operational base there. Located 18 km. from Havana, near the town of Rancho Boyeros, the new airport provided ample space for expansion (compared to Havana's old Columbia Airport, which was hemmed by the city's rapid growth). During the 1930s, Cubana expanded its services to serve most every major city in Cuba. Then, the Second World War stymied Cubana's expansion, due to limited supplies of fuel and aircraft. By the end of the War, however, Cubana was ready to launch its first international route.

International expansion

In May 1945 Cubana started its first scheduled international flights, to Miami using Douglas DC-3 aircraft. Cubana was the first Latin American airline to establish scheduled services to Miami. The Miami route, because of its economic and political significance, would later prove to be an important part of Cubana's history.

In April 1948 a transatlantic route was started between Havana and Madrid (via Bermuda, the Azores and Lisbon) using Douglas DC-4 aircraft. The Madrid route was extended to Rome in 1950. The new route to Europe made Cubana one of the earliest Latin American carriers to establish scheduled transatlantic service. Later, the DC-4s would be replaced by Lockheed Constellation L-049 and Super Constellation L-1049E aircraft.

In the early 1950s the airline purchased several Lockheed Super "G" Constellation L-1049G from the U.S., and jet-prop Vickers Viscount VV-755 aircraft from Britain to renovate its fleet. The Super Constellations allowed Cubana to start service to Mexico City, New York, and to increase frequencies to Madrid via Bermuda, the Azores and Lisbon. The Viscounts were used for its Miami and Nassau flights, and for domestic services to Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba. Cubana's jet-prop Viscount flights to Miami from Havana and Varadero became popular with travellers, because of their shorter flight time and superb onboard service. Cubana usually operated as many as five daily roundtrip Viscount flights between Havana and Miami year-round, with additional flights during holiday periods. The Miami route therefore became Cubana's main international source of revenue during the 1950s.

In 1954, the airline became fully Cuban-owned when Pan American Airways sold its minority stake. This marked Cubana's independence as a private Cuban enterprise. Cuban investors were drawn to Cubana by the airline's potential for growth and by its achievements, such as the quality of passenger services, the renovation of its fleet (which was among the most advanced in Latin America), the experience of its crews, and its projected international expansion. An additional attraction were the airline's promotional efforts to cater to Cuba's growing tourism industry, particularly with American travellers.

Tourism was a nascent industry in the 1950s. Havana, having one of the best hotel and communication infrastructures in Latin America, became a tourist playground, attracting more tourism than any other Latin American city in the mid-1950s. The city's proximity to the U.S. provided a formidable advantage that helped consolidate its position as a prime tourist destination. Cubana took advantage of Havana's excellent tourist infrastructure and amenities by pioneering the combination of flights, hotels and tours as a package. An example of this strategy were the airline's "Tropicana flights" from Miami, which combined flights, hotel, ground transport, and admission to the internationally famous Tropicana Cabaret in Havana. By the mid-1950s, Cubana was the Latin American carrier with most experience in travel promotion.

At at time when airline in-flight publications were practically unknown, Cubana started its own in-flight magazine, "Aeroguía Cubana". The magazine was first published in March 1954. Typically about 60 pages long, with numerous photographs and illustrations, it was published in Spanish and contained articles on Cuba's tourist attractions, Cuban culture and folklore, the Cuban economy, Havana entertainment, points of interest in Cuba's provinces, a directory of Havana museums, hotels, restaurants, night clubs, and a calendar of upcoming monthly cultural and sports events, among other features. "Aeroguía Cubana" was financially supported through advertisements from major, well-known Cuban private companies, such as the Bacardi liquor company, major Havana hotels, the department store El Encanto, and internationally well-known entertainment venues, such as the Tropicana and Montmartre cabarets. Issues of the magazine also often included articles on the airline's international destinations, such as a history of Miami (in the November 1954 issue), along with a humor-comics section and cross-word puzzles. "Aeroguía Cubana" was distributed freely in all of the airline's international services, and in many domestic flights.

In 1957, Cubana started a second publication, the "Cubana Courier", a bilingual monthly newspaper. This publication was oriented toward travel agents and the tourism promotion industry, particularly in the U.S. "Cubana Courier"'s reporting covered a wide range of subjects related to tourism in Cuba and the Cuban economy, among them articles covering Cuban tourism statistics, the Cuban construction industry, Havana's infrastructure, new tourism programmes, and foreign investment in Cuba. The newspaper also sometimes included educational supplements, such as a booklet explaining the workings of the Rolls-Royce Dart jet-prop engines which powered Cubana's Vickers Viscount aircraft. "Cubana Courier" was made available at the airline's international and domestic offices, and was distributed by mail to travel professionals in the U.S., Cuba, and other nations. This newspaper reflected Cubana's growing experience with tourism promotion. To many of the airline's investors, it was a welcome indication of Cubana's pioneering efforts in tourism promotion, and its growing expertise in mass communications related to tourism and travel.

Cubana's travel promotion strategies also enlisted consultants and publicists with wide access to the media. Contracts with American advertising and public relations firms allowed the airline to become well known in the U.S. At the same time, Cuban advertising firms helped promote Cubana's domestic and international services. The airline thus became not only well-known among American travellers, but was also a favorite of Cuba's growing middle classes, as vacation and business travel abroad increased, due to the nation's economic expansion throughout the 1950s.

The PAA-style logo Cubana had used since the 1930s was replaced in 1957, and a new logo and livery compatible with the advent of the jet age were adopted (the new livery and logo were retained until the late 1960s). The new logo's aerodynamic look included an oval-shaped globe showing the geographical areas served by Cubana, with Cuba in the center. It was unique among Latin American airlines, whose logos typically depicted avian-based designs or simply used their acronyms. At this time, Cubana also undertook a renovation of its fleet, opting to replace its long-range piston-prop Super Constellations with jet-prop aircraft, and to expand its existing Vickers Viscount jet-prop fleet in the immediate future.

Cubana placed orders for four long-range Bristol Britannia BB-318 and four Vickers Super Viscount VV-818 aircraft, all jet-props, for its international services (which included Madrid, New York, Mexico City, Miami, Montego Bay, Nassau, Port-au-Prince), and for some of its domestic routes. The new Britannias and Super Viscounts allowed Cubana to become the first Latin American airline to fly only jet-prop aircraft in all its international routes. By the late 1950s, Cubana was the Latin American airline with most experience in the operation and maintenance of British-made jet-prop aircraft. It also had one of the most advanced fleets in Latin America.

The new Bristol Britannias and Super Viscounts entered service in 1958 and 1959, and provided the only jet-prop flights to Cuba at a time when U.S.-flag carriers and all other airlines flew there only with piston-prop aircraft. On 17 January 1959 one of Cubana's new jet-prop Britannias set a record on the New York-Havana route, flying it in 3 hours 28 minutes, the fastest ever for a commercial flight at that time. Cubana's Britannias also allowed the airline to displace competing airlines on the Mexico City and Madrid routes, flying the routes faster while providing excellent onboard service.

Similarly, Cubana's jet-prop Viscounts and Super Viscounts on the Miami flights flew the route faster than competing carriers, with excellent inflight service and amenities upon arrival in Havana. The Miami and New York routes thus became a major source of revenue for the airline. In 1958, Cubana placed an order for two Boeing 707-139 jets, becoming one of the first Latin American carriers planning to purchase this new passenger jet (the order was cancelled in 1960, when U.S.-Cuba relations deteriorated).

Despite Cubana's advances during the 1950s and its position at the forefront of aviation in Latin America and the Caribbean, part of the year 1958 involved some difficulties for the airline. Cuba's intensifying revolutionary struggle impacted Cubana as three of its flights were hijacked. Two of the three hijackings did not result in losses, but one involved numerous fatalities and the loss of an aircraft (a Viscount VV-755). This was the first-ever loss of life or an aircraft due to hijacking in Cubana's history. Revolutionary leaders subsequently apologized for the losses, but the incidents made it clear that Cubana's operations would no longer remain unaffected by the strife. Then, less than two months after the third hijacking incident, revolutionary leaders seized power (in January 1959), and another stage in the history of "Cubana de Aviación" began.

Revolution and Socialism

When Cuba's revolutionary government, led by Fidel Castro, seized power in January 1959 Cubana was seen as an important resource. Building up the new government's foreign relations became an important priority, and Cubana had a major role to play in this area. Despite the fact that the airline was a private enterprise, it was viewed by the new government as Cuba's official air carrier.

The events surrounding Cuba's revolutionary process in 1959 and 1960 attracted much international interest. Numerous international celebrities visited Cuba aboard Cubana's flights, providing much publicity to the airline. Among them were French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and writer Simone de Beauvoir, the American singer Josephine Baker, Chilean poet (and later Nobel laureate) Pablo Neruda, British historian Hugh Thomas, Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov, and Colombian writer (and later Nobel laureate) Gabriel García Márquez. For these and many other celebrities who visited Cuba, often as guests of the new government, Cubana was the preferred airline.

In May 1959 the revolutionary government decided to take over Cubana, expropriating all the airline's private investors without compensation. The private passenger airline "Aerovías Q" and private cargo carriers "Cuba Aeropostal" and "Expreso Aéreo Interamericano", were then merged into Cubana. At that time, "Aerovías Q" operated Douglas DC-4 and Curtiss C-46 aircraft (modified for passenger use), while "Cuba Aeropostal" and "Expreso Aéreo Interamericano" used Douglas DC-3 and Curtiss C-46 freighters. "Aerovías Q" had many daily flights from Havana's Columbia Airport (at the time a mixed use civilian-military airport adjacent to the Miramar district) to Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Cuba's Isle of Pines (now named Isla de la Juventud), but its operations were moved to José Martí International Airport when the government took it over. "Cuba Aeropostal" had frequent cargo flights to Miami and within Cuba, while "Expreso Aéreo Interamericano" operated cargo flights to Central America and the Caribbean.

The merger of these airlines with Cubana consolidated Cuban commercial aviation under complete government ownership. Cubana's name was changed to "Empresa Consolidada Cubana de Aviación S.A.", to reflect its new ownership and the mergers. The uncompensated expropriation of all the airline's private investors would, however, have troublesome effects for the airline. Most of the expropriated investors went into exile and sought litigation against Cubana and Cuba's revolutionary government. In the U.S., in particular, court orders to impound Cubana's aircraft were issued at various times, starting in 1960. Such actions disrupted Cubana's U.S. operations considerably, leading sometimes to flight delays or cancellations. The expropriation of Cubana's investors was among the first wave of business and property confiscations enacted by Cuba's revolutionary government, as it sought greater control over the economy and, eventually, the elimination of all private businesses and property through a Soviet-style centrally-planned economy.

Under complete state control, Cubana became an important resource in the revolutionary government's foreign relations strategy. Domestic and international travel by the government's leaders, and visits by official guests, were coordinated through the airline. Special flights for government officials and guests were operated frequently, as the airline became an essential element of Cuba's foreign policy. Important projects, such as the creation of the Cuban government's international press agency, Prensa Latina, in 1959 used Cubana for all travel arrangements. Cubana's international offices also became closely linked with Cuba's diplomatic legations.

After 1960, the quality of Cubana's passenger services and technical standards declined markedly. Many of the airline's most experienced crews and technicians went into exile, reducing its pool of skilled personnel and the quality of service. Then, by early 1961 Cubana had to discontinue its U.S. routes, which included Miami and New York, along with the merged "Aerovías Q" and "Cuba Aeropostal" services to Florida. Rising tensions between the U.S. and Cuban governments, threats to impound aircraft in retaliation for the nationalization of American properties, and the breaking of diplomatic relations by the U.S. government (in January 1961), were the main causes for the cancellation of the routes. Political problems in Cuba and U.S. government policies toward Cuba also led to occasional aircraft hijackings.

Despite these problems, in 1961 Cubana expanded its scheduled transatlantic services to Prague (apart from its existing Madrid route) using its Bristol Britannia jet-props. This was the first regular air service by a Latin American airline to Eastern Europe. The new Prague route made a scheduled refueling stop in Gander (Canada) before reaching Prague [stopping also in Shannon (Ireland) on the return flight] . Cubana then ceded one of its Britannias to Czechoslovak Airlines (CSA) so that it could start its own Prague-Havana flights, in cooperation with Cubana's services on that route. Cubana's crews trained CSA personnel in the operation of the Britannias. This allowed CSA to establish its first-ever scheduled transatlantic service in 1962.

With the U.S. breaking relations (in 1961) and the imposition of the U.S. embargo on Cuba (in 1962), Cubana turned to the Soviet Union to obtain new aircraft. Although the Bristol Britannias were kept in service for many years, the airline's Viscounts (VV-755) and Super Viscounts (VV-818) were sold in 1961 and 1962 to other carriers (Cunard Eagle, Trans-Australia, and South African Airways). The first Soviet-built aircraft type delivered was the twin-engine, piston-prop Ilyushin IL-14 in 1961. Soon after, Ilyushin IL-18 jet-props were delivered, followed by Antonov AN-24, AN-12 and AN-26 (also jet-prop) aircraft. All these aircraft were placed in Cubana's domestic routes, replacing the Viscounts, Super Viscounts and U.S.-built aircraft. Except for the Bristol Britannias, Cubana's fleet would now be made up of Soviet-built aircraft.

Later on, with the arrival of the Ilyushin IL-62 jets, Cubana was able to replace its aging Britannias and start all-jet service to Europe on its already existing routes to Madrid and Prague (via Gander, Canada). A fleet of Tupolev TU-154, Ilyushin IL-76, Yakovlev YAK-40 and YAK-42 jets, and the more advanced Ilyushin IL-62M followed in the 1970s for the airline's transatlantic, Latin American and domestic services. The acquisition of this large and diverse fleet was subsidized by the Soviet government and carried very favorable terms, such as repayment through general barter trade in place of hard currency. As a result, Cubana became the Latin American carrier with most experience in the operation of Soviet-built aircraft.

Cubana's new Soviet-built fleet was accompanied by important cooperation agreements with Soviet bloc airlines. Cooperation with CSA Czechoslovak Airlines allowed Cubana to start scheduled services to Prague in 1961, and led to CSA's own operation of its first scheduled transatlantic services the following year. Cubana's cooperation made it possible for Aeroflot Soviet Airlines to establish 18-hour nonstop scheduled services between Moscow and Havana in 1963. These were the longest nonstop flights in the world, and the Tupolev 114 aircraft Aeroflot used were also the largest passenger aircraft in service at that time. Cooperation with the East German airline Interflug made it possible for this carrier to establish its first scheduled transatlantic services, linking East Berlin with Havana. These and other cooperation agreements supported Cubana's technical capabilities and led to mutual accords involving representative offices, aircraft maintenance, and passenger services.

These agreements also allowed Cubana to fulfill a very important and little-known strategic role for the Cuban government. Throughout the 1960s, numerous aspiring revolutionaries from Latin America travelled to Cuba for military or intelligence training, education, and conferences. They usually travelled on Cubana's flights from Prague, and in some cases also used the airline's occasional special flights to Soviet bloc cities. This long roundabout became very important when almost all Latin American nations severed relations with Cuba. By the mid-1960s, only Mexico had diplomatic relations with Cuba, and Cubana's Mexico City service provided the only flights to Latin America. The Mexico City flights were closely monitored by Western intelligence agencies, however, making it difficult for individuals who travelled to Cuba to remain undetected. Through its transatlantic flights to Prague and other Soviet bloc cities, Cubana therefore helped fulfill a major element of the Cuban government's foreign relations strategy. Later, throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, numerous African revolutionaries would also use Cubana's services from Soviet bloc nations, to travel to Cuba undetected by Western intelligence services.

In 1975 Cubana's old Bristol Britannias, then held in reserve, were pressed back into service to ferry elite Cuban troops to Angola. The Britannias were modified (with additional fuel tanks placed inside the passenger cabin) by Cubana's technicians, to allow non-stop flights from Cuba to Africa and provide greater secrecy. Access to the cargo bay from the passenger cabin was also provided, to facilitate the rapid deployment of weapons and ammunition. Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez wrote articles in 1976 narrating the role of Cubana's Britannias and its pilots in flying the first contingent of elite Cuban troops to Angola. The route for those very urgent flights involved a brief stop at Conakry for refueling, and at Brazzaville for intelligence reports on developments in Luanda. Arrivals in Brazzaville and Luanda were scheduled for nighttime, and the aircraft's exterior and interior lights were turned off before landing, on the ground, and during takeoff to avoid attracting attention. These flights were undertaken in complete secrecy, and helped prevent the invading South African army from occupying Luanda when Angola declared independence. Soon after, Cubana established scheduled passenger service between Havana and Luanda.

In the mid-1970s, Cubana leased Douglas DC-8 aircraft (previously in service with Air Canada) for its Canadian, Caribbean and Guyana services. These aircraft were leased with support from the Canadian government, as part of bilateral trade agreements between Canada and Cuba. They allowed Cubana to gain experience operating U.S.-built jets and made up for delays in deliveries of Soviet-made aircraft. One of the DC-8s was damaged in an accident with no loss of life, but another was lost when explosions occurred during an international flight, resulting in numerous fatalities. The Cuban government decried the explosions as sabotage. The leases for those aircraft were terminated in the late 1970s, as a result of the losses. Except for the Britannias, the DC-8s were the only Western-built aircraft Cubana operated during the1970s.

By early 1980, Cubana flew scheduled services to Eastern and Western Europe (Prague, East Berlin, Moscow, Madrid, Paris, Lisbon), Sub-Saharan Africa (Luanda), the Middle East and North Africa (Baghdad, Tripoli), Canada (Montréal, Toronto, Gander), and to various Latin American and Caribbean destinations (Mexico City, Panama, Managua, Lima, Kingston, Barbados, Port of Spain, Georgetown). A route to Vietnam was under consideration at that time but was never started.

Most of these services were sustained through the decade of the 1980s. Cubana's international flights mostly carried government officials, sports delegations, military personnel, scholarship students, cultural exchange delegations, medical personnel on aid missions, and visitors to official events in Cuba. Most international destinations were served only once or twice per week. As the Cuban government began to make tourism a priority in the late 1980s, however, Cubana's international flights started to cater more to this growing segment of travellers to Cuba. Then, the collapse of the Soviet bloc by the end of the 1980s, and the Soviet Union's own dissolution in 1991, would have a major impact on the airline's operations.

Post-Cold War era

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cubana faced the formidable challenges of improving passenger services, revamping its technical capabilities, and restructuring its fleet. Any one of those challenges would have been a daunting undertaking for any major Western airline. Cubana had to face all of them at the same time, with great urgency, along with the continuing U.S. embargo on Cuba (which prohibited sales of U.S.-made aircraft and components). As a result, substantial flight delays, sometimes lasting days, uneven passenger service and some accidents, marred Cubana's attempts to attract passengers to what was essentially a company operating with Soviet-bloc airline standards.

Efforts were made to improve operations in the early 1990s by leasing Western-built aircraft and improving onboard service. However, throughout the 1990s the quality of Cubana's passenger service remained far below pre-1960 standards, when it was considered comparable to, or even better than, that of U.S.-flag airlines. To make matters worse, technical deficiencies and low staff morale added to the airline's difficulties as it tried to compete for passengers in Western Europe, Latin America, and Canada. A series of fatal accidents in the 1990s compounded Cubana's troubles, leading to a negative reputation among some travellers. Beyond these problems, occasional hijackings of Cubana's domestic flights also made it difficult to improve the airline's image and its competitive position, compared with other carriers flying to Cuba.

An important part of Cubana's strategy after the collapse of the Soviet bloc was to lease Western-built aircraft. The airline leased long-range McDonnell Douglas DC-10 wide-bodies from the French airline AOM and medium-range Airbus A320 aircraft, to complement its Soviet-built fleet. Cubana also acquired several Fokker F-27 jet-props from Iberia Airlines of Spain, and Sud Aviation ATR-42 jet-prop aircraft to sustain its short-range routes. Wide-body aircraft such as Airbus A330 and occasionally Boeing 747 and Boeing 767, were also leased from various European carriers, to support its transatlantic services and Cuba's rapidly growing tourist traffic.

In the 1990s, using Western-built aircraft and also its aging Soviet-built fleet, Cubana established new routes to western Europe and Latin America, to cater to Cuba's rapidly growing tourism industry.

Cubana's new 1990s routes included:
*In Europe: Geneva, London, Manchester, Rome, Milan, Copenhagen, Brussels, Frankfurt, Berlin, Barcelona, Las Palmas, Vitoria, Santiago de Compostela.
*In South America: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Bogotá, Caracas, Mendoza, Quito, Guayaquil, Montevideo.
*In Central America: Cancún, Guatemala City, San José de Costa Rica.
*In the Caribbean: Santo Domingo, St. Maarten, Montego Bay, Fort de France, Nassau, Grand Cayman, Pointe a Pitre.

In the 1990s Cubana also undertook many special flights involving humanitarian missions. When in 1998 the hurricanes George and Mitch caused severe damage in Central America and the Caribbean, for example, Cuban medical brigades and provisions were flown to the affected nations aboard Cubana aircraft. The airline also flew sports delegations from Cuba and other Caribbean nations to international competitions around the world. Cubana's strategic importance to Cuba's foreign relations and to its tourism industry was well understood by the Cuban government. As a result, considerable efforts have been devoted to renovate the airline's fleet and its technical capabilities.


After the 1990s, spare parts for Cubana's Soviet-built aircraft became harder to find. Also, the obsolescence of its Soviet-built fleet required urgent attention for the airline to have any chance of competing with other carriers serving Cuba and its rapidly growing tourism industry. Cubana's management therefore made efforts to renovate its fleet and in 2005 received several new long-range Ilyushin IL-96-300 wide-body jets from Russia, to replace some of the leased western-built wide-bodies and its aged Soviet-era aircraft. New medium-range Russian Tupolev TU-204 jets were also ordered. The new IL-96 and TU-204 jets were financed with the assistance of the Russian government.

Cubana refurbished some of its aging Ilyushin IL-62M aircraft in the early 2000s, to use them in some of its international routes. The refurbished IL-62M aircraft have been used in some of Cubana's flights within Latin America and for special flights to Africa. The airline's limited financial resources and the lack of Western financing to replace these aircraft made it necessary to keep them in service despite their age. Also, restrictions imposed by the U.S. embargo on the sale of American-built aircraft and components (such as engines and avionics) made it necessary to keep the IL-62M and other Soviet-built aircraft in service.

Cubana's long-term renovation strategy is based on the purchase of new Russian-built aircraft. Although the airline's long-standing experience with Soviet-built aircraft may play a role in this strategy, the most important factor seems to be the financing provided by aircraft companies such as Ilyushin and Tupolev, with the assistance of the Russian government. The efficiency and performance of the most modern Russian aircraft, such as the IL-96 and TU-204, compare well with aircraft built by Airbus and Boeing. The much lower purchase price of Russian aircraft makes them attractive to government-owned airlines with limited financial resources. And, the Russian government's eagerness to strengthen what remains of its aircraft industry has undoubtedly also played a part in the financing of new aircraft to Cubana.

Beyond favorable financing and low purchase prices, the acquisition of new aircraft from Russia also follows strategic political considerations. Some Western European governments (and the European Union) have often pressed the Cuban government for internal political reforms. The U.S. government itself imposed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1962, and conditions its lifting on the implementation of internal reforms. The possibility that access to spare parts and components might be cut off for political reasons likely discouraged the purchase of Western-built aircraft. The Russian government, on the other hand, did not attach any political strings to the sale or financing of Russian-built aircraft, and does not press the Cuban government for internal reforms. This stance may have influenced the Cuban government's decision to forego the purchase of Airbus or Boeing aircraft to renovate Cubana's fleet. The policy has therefore been to lease Airbus and Boeing aircraft from Western European airlines whenever needed, and only for limited periods of time.

As part of its renovation strategy, Cubana has sought to upgrade its technical support capabilities. The airline established a joint venture company with Iberia Airlines of Spain in 2005, to maintain and overhaul Western-built aircraft, including all Airbus and Boeing models. Technical facilities are located in Havana and several other Cuban cities served by foreign carriers. The joint venture company, IBECA (incorporating Iberia's and Cubana's initials), is 50% owned by Cubana. It has contracted with various airlines flying to Cuba to provide maintenance and technical support. Expertise gained through this venture are likely to help Cubana's technical capabilities with its new Russian aircraft, since they share many features with Western-built airplanes.

Cubana's renovation efforts are also related to the airline's strategic importance for the Cuban government and its foreign relations. New Ilyushin IL-96-300 wide-bodies and also old IL-62M aircraft, showing Cubana livery, but with specially configured executive cabins and medical facilities, are typically used by high-level Cuban government officials on trips abroad. The compatibility of these specially configured long-range aircraft with Cubana's passenger fleet has always been important, for technical and strategic reasons. The specially configured aircraft (displaying Cubana livery) are never used on commercial flights, and they are maintained and kept under close guard at a military airport near Havana. The registration numbers shown on those aircraft might occasionally duplicate or be switched with those on other Cubana aircraft on regular passenger service, when high-level officials travel abroad, for security reasons. Cubana's pilots have typically served in the Cuban air force, and are well versed in the operation of multiple types of aircraft.

During the August 2007 MAKS Airshow Cubana signed a $150 million dollar contract for the purchase and confirmation of 2 Tupolev Tu-204 and 3 Antonov An-148 regional aircraft, to be delivered between 2008 and 2011. [ [http://www.industrywatch.com/pages/iw2/Story.nsp?story_id=109695365&ID=iw&scategory=Business+and+Finance%3AJoint+Ventures&P=&F=&R=&VNC=hnall 2007 MAKS Airshow] - Cubana signed a $150 million dollars for the delivery of 2 addional TU-204 and 3 AN-148] Cubana will become one of the Antonov An-148 launch customers.

Club Tropical lounge

Members of 'Club Tropical', the VIP club, can take advantage of an open lounge with all kinds of Cuban liquor and beverages at the airport. The Club Tropical Lounge can be found at the Havana's José Martí International Airport, Varadero's Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport, Cayo Coco Jardines del Rey Airport, Holguin's Frank País Airport among others. The special drinks served, are Havana Club rum, Mojitos among other Cuban drinks.


Onboard entertainment is presented by "Aerovision", the Cubana airline in-flight channel. Options include the latest Hollywood movies, and interesting informational and nature videos called Destiny Programs. There is also a wide selection of music for private listening.
*Aerovision In-flight Programs by Destinations:
**"Aerovision" European flights television programs are: Inside The Caiman, 2 Hollywood films, All About Cuba 3, Come Closer 3, Wake Up Program, Onboard Sale Program, and Variet Dinner.
**"Aerovision" Brazil/Argentina inflight television programs are: Natual Vision, Inside The Caiman, Hollywood film, Wake Up, and Dinner.
**"Aerovision" Canadian inflight television programs are: Natural Vision, and a Hollywood film.
**"Aerovision" Venezuelan flights: All About Cuba.
**"Aerovision" Colombia/ Dominican Republic inflight television programs are: Natural Vision.
**"Aerovision" Mexico inflight television programs are: Natural Vision 3, and Natural Vision 6.


Cubana's in-flight magazine, "Sol Y Son", provides articles and information on Cuba to all international passengers. The magazine has been published since 1992, and is one of Cuba's more important tourist-oriented magazines.

Incidents and accidents

Cubana de Aviación has been involved in 43 incidents and accidents between 1950 and 2003 with 544 fatalities. (Note: only fatal accidents are listed before 1990)
*On January 19, 1985, a Cubana Ilyushin Il-18 ("CU-T-899") crashed near San Jose De Lejas after take off, all 38 on board died.
*On September 3, 1989, a Cubana de Aviación Ilyushin 62M ("CU-T1281") on a non-scheduled international passenger flight from Havana (José Martí International Airport), Cuba to Cologne/Bonn (Cologne Bonn Airport), Germany crashed shortly after take-off. All of the 115 passengers and 11 crew members as well as 45 persons on the ground were killed and the aircraft was written off. Most of the passengers were Italian tourists, who returned from holidays.
*On August 29 1998, a Cubana de Aviación Tupolev 154M ("CU-T1264") on a scheduled passenger flight from Quito (Mariscal Sucre Airport), Ecuador to Guayaquil (Simón Bolívar International Airport), Ecuador crashed after the crew aborted the take-off with only 800 metres left of the runway. The aircraft overran the runway before coming to a stop. 56 of the 77 passengers and the entire crew of 14 were killed as well as 10 people on the ground, and the aircraft was written off.
*On December 21 1999, a Cubana de Aviación McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 ("F-GTDI") on lease from AOM French Airlines on an international non-scheduled passenger flight from Havana (José Martí International Airport) suffered a landing accident at Guatemala City (La Aurora International Airport), Guatemala. The aircraft overran runway 19 and continued down a steep slope before coming to rest in a residential area. 8 of the 296 passengers and 8 of the 18 crew as well as 2 people on the ground were killed and the aircraft written off.
*On March 31, 2003, a Cubana de Aviación Antonov An-24 ("CU-T1294") on a domestic scheduled passenger flight from Nueva Gerona was forced to fly to Key West, Florida by a man with hand grenades. The plane had to stop in Havana (José Martí International Airport) for refueling. In Havana at least 26 of the 40 passengers and 6 crew members in the plane escaped or were released. The aircraft then proceeded on to Key West (Key West International Airport) where the FBI awaited the plane.


*Cubana was the first Latin American airline to establish scheduled service to Miami, in 1945.
*Cubana was one of the first Latin American carriers to start regular transatlantic services, in 1948.
*Cubana was the first airline in Latin America to operate Lockheed Super Constellation (L-1049E) aircraft, starting in 1953. It was also one of the first airlines to operate the more advanced Super "G" Constellation (L-1049G), starting in 1954.
*Cubana was the first airline in Latin America to operate jet-prop aircraft, starting with the Vickers Viscount in 1956.
*Cubana was the first Latin American carrier to fly jet-prop aircraft across the Atlantic, using Bristol Britannias on its Madrid route, in the late 1950s.
*Cubana was the first Latin American airline to fly to Eastern Europe, with scheduled service to Prague starting in 1961, using jet-prop Bristol Britannias.
*Cubana was the first Latin American airline to fly Soviet-built aircraft, operating eight different types of short-, medium- and long-range Soviet-made airplanes between 1961 and 1991.
*Cuban leader Fidel Castro travelled in one of Cubana's Britannias to Caracas, Washington and New York in January and the spring of 1959, his first official trips abroad after seizing power. The Britannia Mr. Castro flew in was christened "Libertad" (freedom).
*In October 1960, Fidel Castro flew in one of Cubana's Bristol Britannias to New York, to address the United Nations General Assembly. The Britannia he travelled in was temporarily impounded to allegedly settle debts incurred by the airline with a Miami advertising agency, and to try to compensate one of Cubana's confiscated stockholders. A total of three impoundment orders were issued by U.S. courts. Castro then returned to Havana in one of Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev's aircraft, an Ilyushin IL-18. Cubana's Britannia was later returned to Cuba.
*Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara flew in Cubana's Britannias on official trips abroad, which included Egypt, the Soviet Union, China, and various nations in eastern Europe in 1960, Brazil and Uruguay in 1961, New York to address the United Nations' General Assembly in December 1964, Algeria, China and various eastern and western African nations in late 1964 and early 1965, among others.
*When French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and author Simone de Beauvoir visited Cuba in 1960 they flew there in a Cubana scheduled flight, aboard one of the airline's legendary Bristol Britannias.
*In the early 1960s many of Cubana's most experienced pilots and management went into exile. Among them was Cubana's longstanding chief pilot, William Cook, and the airline's former president, Sergio Clark. Pilots who went into exile were not allowed to return or visit Cuba again.
*During the early and mid-1960s many aspiring revolutionaries flew to Havana in Cubana's Britannias, for meetings and training. Among them was the East German-Argentine Tamara Bunke (nom de guerre: Tania), who died in Bolivia fighting alongside Che Guevara in 1967.
*Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda flew to Havana on Cubana, usually on scheduled flights from Mexico City during the 1960s. When Cubana started a route to Santiago, Chile in 1971, Neruda was one of the first passengers to fly it. Ilyushin IL-62 aircraft were used on that route.
*After Cubana started service to Prague in 1961, one of its Britannias was ceded to Czechoslovak Airlines (CSA), so that it could start its own Prague-Havana service as a counterpart to Cubana's. CSA had no long-range aircraft in its fleet, and the use of Cubana's Britannia allowed it to start its first-ever transatlantic service in February 1962. Cubana crews trained CSA personnel in the operation of the Britannia.
*Since the 1960s, revolutionary guerrilla fighters from Colombia, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Nicaragua, El Salvador and other nations often flew to Cuba for medical treatment and training, on special Cubana flights. In the 1960s, many of them flew to Cuba from Prague in Cubana's or Czechoslovak Airlines' Britannias, since at that time most Latin American nations had no diplomatic relations with Cuba. The only regular flights available during that time between Cuba and the rest of Latin America were Cubana's from Mexico City, which were closely monitored by Western intelligence agencies.
*In the 1970s and 1980s, Cubana's Ilyushin IL-62, IL-18 and IL-76 aircraft frequently carried Cuban military and medical personnel to Ethiopia, Syria, Vietnam, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Tanzania, Sierra Leone and other nations, in special flights.
*Cubana aircraft typically carry Cuban medical and disaster relief personnel to areas affected by natural disasters throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.
*Cuba's growing biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical tourism sectors rely greatly on Cubana's passenger and cargo services.
*Cubana is the only major Latin American carrier flying Russian-built airplanes, and in 2005 became the first Latin American airline to operate the Ilyushin IL-96 wide-body jet in its scheduled transatlantic and South American routes.
*Cuba's national sports teams usually fly on Cubana to major international events.

Former Names

*1929-10-08 "Compañía Nacional Cubana de Aviación Curtiss, S.A." - (Associated with the Curtiss aircraft manufacturing company.)
*1932-03-22 "Compañía Nacional Cubana de Aviación S.A" - (Purchased from Curtiss by Pan American Airways).
*1944-03-21 "Compañía Cubana de Aviación, S.A." - (Controlled by Cuban investors)
*1959-05-25 "Empresa Consolidada Cubana de Aviación" - (Merged "Aerovías Q", "Cuba Aeropostal" and "Expreso Aéreo Interamericano" into Cubana.)
*1961-06-27 "Empresa Consolidada Cubana de Aviación" - (Nationalized)
*1996 "Cubana de Aviación S.A." - (Current name)

ee also

*List of Cuba-US aircraft hijackings




*"Aeroguía Cubana" magazine, volume 1, issues 1-9 (March-November 1954).
*AeroTransport Data Bank, Cubana fleet data, website "www.aerotransport.org".
*"Aerovías Q" timetable, undated, circa 1958.
*"Aviación Cubana", website "http://geocities.com".
*Biographical notes on aviators: Agustín Parlá, website "www.earlyaviators.com/eparla.htm"; Domingo Rosillo, website "www.rcooper.0catch.com/erosillo.htm".
*"Breve Historia de la Aviación Cubana", website "www.cubaaereo.com".
*Britannia Aircraft Preservation Trust, website "www.britannia.flyer.co.uk".
*"Ceskoslovenske Aerolinie" (CSA) timetable, April 1962.
*Cuban Tourist Commission, "Cuba" magazine, 1959.
*"Cubana Airlines: Pioneer in World Aviation" brochure, undated (circa 1958).
*"Cubana Courier" newspaper, volume 1, various issues, 1957.
*"Cubana de Aviación" timetables, November 1, 1945; January 1, 1946; March 1948; April 1948; May 1948; May 1953; May 1, 1955; September 16, 1955; December 1, 1955; September 1, 1957; June 1958; Summer 1961; December 1, 1965; June 1968; April 1, 1986; May 1, 1990; Summer 2006.
*García Dulzaides, Aurelio, "Álbum Azul de Cuba", Rex Press, Miami, 1965.
*Gómez Fariñas, George, "Una tragedia cubana, 40 años después", "El Nuevo Herald", December 15, 1992.
*Martí, Julio, "75 primaveras en alturas", "Sol y Son" magazine, November 15, 2004, website "www.solysonmagazine.com".
*Pan American Union, "Cuba", Washington D.C., 1943.
*Reed, Ted and Mimi Whitefield, "Cuba improves fleet with Western planes", "The Miami Herald", February 6, 1994.
*"Revolución" newspaper, volumes 1, 2 and 3, various issues, 1959, 1960, 1961.
*Rodríguez, Jorge L. and Diana Rodríguez, "En Alas Cubanas", book (416 pages) available through website "www.cubaaereo.com".
*"Time" magazine, "Flight 482 Is Missing", November 17, 1958.
*"Time" magazine, "Red All The Way", October 10, 1960.
*Vickers Viscount Network, website "www.vickersviscount.net".

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