Flying Behind The Coconut Curtain: Cuba and Havana’s José Martí International Airport

 Story and Photography by: Chris Sloan, Founder and Executive Editor Airchive.com

All timetables, route maps, and historic brochures in this post are provided by and are property of Airchive.com

Last Updated: March 24, 2013

Fidel Castro, in full military garb, is painted posing with Cubana’s old Russian fleet in this mural on a wall of the airline’s maintenance base at HAV.

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 salsa 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 Las Vegas of the Caribbean” before there was even the Las Vegas we know of today.

El Floridita is historic club in the older part of Havana, La Habana Vieja. The live music thumps and rum flows until the wee hours at this time warp of a club.

El Capitolio, or National Capitol Building in Havana, Cuba, was the seat of government in Cuba until after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Its design and name link it to the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., but it is only superficially similar, and quite smaller. Completed in 1929, it was the tallest building in Havana until the 1950s and is taller then the U.S. Capitol by a few feet. It was undergoing restoration at the time of our visit.

The Malecón (officially Avenida de Maceo) is a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches for 4 miles along the coast in Havana. It looks out over the turbulent waters of the Florida Straits, with ocean spray constantly splashing those walking it. It extends from the mouth of Havana Harbor in Old Havana, along the north side of the Centro Habana neighborhood, ending in the Vedado neighborhood. The broad sidewalks are a gathering spot for Cubans, but the road itself has only light traffic.

A highlight to any visit to Cuba. is a night at the world famous Tropicana Cabaret and Club. Founded in 1939, it is a complete throw back to a previous era with its fabulous music, lively showgirls, dancing, and unusual stunts. Havana Club Rum and Cohiba cigars are in abundance for the 2 hour spectacular show which somehow endured even after the Revolution.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is an historic hotel located on the Malecón in the middle of Vedado, Havana, Cuba. It has a view of Havana Harbor, the seawall and the city. Still opulent but somewhat faded, it opened in 1930, when Cuba was a prime travel destination for Americans. The hotel was built on the site of the Santa Clara Battery, which dates back to 1797. Part of the battery has been preserved in the hotel’s gardens overlooking the sea, including two large coastal guns dating from the late 19th Century and tunnels. There is also a small museum there featuring the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. During the crisis, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara set up their headquarters there to prepare the defense of Havana from aerial attack. The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is a World Heritage Site.

Cuban school kids in their uniforms in Habana Vieja about to practice their patriotic dance and music. Though they are an upbeat and friendly crowd, one can’t help but to hope they have a better future than their parents and one that is free.

The tobacco, sugar, and farming region of the western Pinar del Río region of Cuba is astonishingly beautiful. It was almost completely deforested until the 1980s when the government forbid any more lumbering and planted new trees. This was one of the few things we can all agree on that they did right.

The warm, fun, and friendly Cuban people are the absolute highlight of a visit to this Island. They remain upbeat in the face of numerous hardships. Many express open and private dis-satisfaction with the regime and its affects. Cubans are vibrant, well-educated, and opinionated people, who are increasingly aware of their place in the world despite the Communist governments continued efforts to try to isolate them such as denying them access to the Internet.

In a picture that could have been taken in 1959, not 2013, the late modernist architecture of a movie theater in Havana is framed by the vision of a 1953 Chevrolet in the foreground.

Exuberant musicians perform in a Carnival like parade in La Habana Vieja.

The Havana skyline and The Malecón (officially Avenida de Maceo), seen from Moro Castle across Havana’s Harbor.

Cuba is truly a museum on wheels with a significant amount of the country’s fleet being cars from 1959 and earlier. Once the trade embargo began, imports from the U.S. stopped as cars were imported from the USSR and eventually Japan. Until the last few years, unless you had special privilege’s, most Cubans were not legally allowed to privately own cars built after 1959, nor could they really afford newer automobiles. Though private car ownership has broadened out and imports of newer cars have accelerated, the Cuban’s continue to keep these relics running through ingenuity. They are indeed an icon of the country.

The Hotel Habana Riviera, or Havana Rivera as it is otherwise known, is located on the Malecón, looks virtually just as it did at the time of its 1957 opening. Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, the Rivera was the first hotel in Cuba with air-conditioned rooms. This historic hotel was not only controlled by mobster Meyer Lansky but was anuary 22, 1959, a press conference was held at the Copa Cabaret, which was attended by national journalists and some guests, and there Fidel Castro gave his response to the world in regards to the Cuban Revolution. It was taken over by the Cuban government and its casino was closed. This 350+ room hotel, remains one of the most perfectly preserved example of its kind in the world.

La Habana Vieja, Old Town Havana, and indeed much of the city is a pastiche of gorgeous buildings ad homes undergoing decay and renovation. In recent years, there have been significant efforts to restore these gorgeous structures. The infrastructure has alot of catching up to do, with entire sections of sidewalk being crumbled rocks and mud.

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. CU frequently flew daily flights to Miami and New York Idyllwild first using DC-3s, DC-4s, Lockheed Constellations, Vickers jet-prop Viscount 318s and Bristol turbo-prop Britannias.

Pan American World Airways first route was Key West-Havana beginning on October 19, 1927. Service eventually relocated from Key West to Miami.

National Airlines was one of the major carriers flying to Havana and continued doing so right up until the travel restrictions forced it to discontinue the route in 1961.

Delta served Havana and other cities in Cuba from New Orleans, its former Caribbean and Latin America gateway. Delta ended services to Cuba in 1961 under order of the U.S. government.

Cubana, a progressive airline up until the end of the 1950s, was aided by Pan Am before the Revolution.

Cubana operated Bristol Britannia Turbo-Props to New York City, Miami, and Europe beginning in 1958. Cubana was the first Latin American carrier to operate an all Intercontinental prop-jet fleet.

For the citizens of Cuba, these were the best of times 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 “have’s” but many “have not’s”. 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 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 would lose everything they have and never return 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.

Plaza de la Revolución “Revolution Square” in Havana is where many political rallies take place and Fidel Castro and other political figures address Cubans. Fidel Castro has addressed more than a million Cubans on many important occasions, such as 1 May and 26 July each year.
The square is dominated by the José Martí Memorial, which features this 358 ft tall tower and an 59 foot statue. It was here where the Pope John Paul II historically made his address to Cuba.

There is virtually no advertising in Havana with the exception of government propaganda and announcements. In 2013, Cuba “celebrated” the 54th Anniversary of the 1959 Revolution with this poster featuring Fidel and Raul Castro in their trademark Army fatigues.

This front-page newspaper headline trumpets “Long Live Cuba” after the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. These have not been restored, though the U.S. maintains a special interests section in Havana.

Past-Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, and George W. Bush are parodied in these charactures at the Museum of Revolution. There is an equally unflattering image of Obama, but curiously former President Bill Clinton is absent from the malicious parody.

Located behind the Plaza de la Revolución (“Revolution Square”), is this government office building with Fidel’s image plastered on the facade. His offices were in one of these buildings.

In a country notable for its absence of capitalism and advertising, government propaganda is ubiquitous such as this banner which states that “The Revolution is for Unity. For Independence”.

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 island Communist 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.

 

José Martí International Airport as it appeared in the late 1970s from Cubana’s 1979 “50th Anniversary” brochure.

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.

 

The main departures board at HAV Terminal 3 shows many destinations in Latin America. Flights to Europe depart later in the evening. Copa to Panama operates the most flights of any further carrier at HAV.

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 yet 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.

The decaying interiors of an apartment building seem more South Bronx circa 1970s then La Habana Vieja (Old Town Havana) 2013. One of the finest Paladars (private restaurants) in Cuba was located 4 more flights up these stairs. Paladars, usually located in people’s homes, are one of the few private businesses that have endured since the Revolution.

This sports stadium exemplifies the Cuban Contradiction of fascinating architecture, made even more spellbinding and sad at the same time due to decay and years of neglect. This is a recurring theme everywhere you look.

When visiting Cuba, you must leave the city to get a true feel for the country. This village is located on the way to Hemingway’s House.

After the Revolution of 1959, American modernist and art-deco and Spanish inspired Mediterranean architecture was super-ceded by 1960s Soviet Eastern Bloc design. This ugly architecture, more at home in old East Berlin, Moscow, or Prague then the tropics is unfortunately ubiquitous throughout Havana. One can only hope that decay and new construction eventually means an end to these eyesores.

When private property, including homes, was confiscated during the Revolution, the former homes of the wealthy were converted into homes shared by many families. In a scene repeated in all neighborhoods including the former upscale ones like Miramar, the decay is almost incomprehensible.

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.

 

It’s not every day the Flight Information Screens display Havana Airport as a destination unless you’re at Miami International Airport.

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.

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 leapt at the chance. The story of our 6-day trip to Cuba is one left to 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 2 aggressive customs officer 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.

Havana, and indeed Cuba, had a size-able population up until The Revolution. There are still an estimated 1,500-2,000 Jews referred in Cuba as “Americanos” remaining in Cuba. The population is active with a number of synagogues despite there not being a single permanent rabbi on the Island. The Jewish Cemetery, located on the outskirts of Havana, was a personal and very moving highlight of our temple’s trip to Cuba.

 

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.

The ticket counter at Miami International Airport for our flight to Havana was bustling, even at 5:00AM on a Sunday as were expected to show up for the flight 3 1/2 hours before departure.

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 MIA-HAV when there’s demand. JetBlue flies some charters from Ft. Lauderdale. Our time machine of the day is itself a time machine with wings – an elderly World Atlantic, ex-Spanair MD-83. Miami based World Atlantic operates 3 MD-82/83s on charters around the U.S. and Caribbean but the MIA-HAV shuttle is its busiest route. Most Cuban flights originate from the former Pan Am/American Airlines “High E” gates at Miami. The trepidation and at the same time nervous excitement on passengers faces is palpable as we prepare for our 8:30AM 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 faces.

N802WA, a World Atlantic McDonnell Douglas MD-83, is the airplane we flew to Havana. It was built in 1990. Before flying for World Atlantic, the airplane flew for bankrupt Spanair. WAA’s Boeing MD-83 aircraft have a new interior and new configuration of 155 one class seats, providing with seat pitch ranging from 30″ to 33″.

 

Miami-based Sky King operates 3 ex-Alaska Boeing 737-400s on charter flights for numerous touring agencies with flights into Cuba. Currently, flights to Cuba originate from Miami, Tampa, and New York. The majority of the flights into Cuba are to Cienfuegos, Havana, Camaguey, Holguin, and Santiago de Cuba.

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. 1 of the 3 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 MIA-HAV 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 6 minutes. Our MD then turns due south just east of Key West and begins its descent as we are only as the saying goes “90 miles to Cuba”. We approach the coastline and overshoot the airport heading south over the northwest part of island, which is heavily deforested before turning back north for our finals into José Martí . In contrast to our arrival back in America a week later, our arrival in Havana is surreal and somewhat somber. Our World Atlantic pilots execute a nice grease job landing onto HAV’s single 13,312-foot runway 06/24.

The flight-path of our 42 minute flight from Miami to Havana. We only leveled off at our maximum cruising altitude of 26,000 feet for 6 minutes.
Flight tracking courtesy: Flight Aware

 

Approaching the northern Cuban coastline over the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Straits

On our descent into Havana, our World Atlantic MD-83 shadow is projected onto the somewhat barren landscape outside of Havana.

We taxi past Cubana’s smallish, but architecturally imposing maintenance base where we quickly learn that “we’re not in Kansas anymore”. A TU-204, 2 TU-154s, and IL-96-300 rest on the ramp at the base, along with a Cubana Airbus A320. It appears more of the Cubana fleet is on the ground then in the air. The Cubana mural on the side of the hanger featuring a weapon-wielding revolutionary posing with the Russian-built fleet is another indicator that we have arrived in an alien land. Our MD-83 then passes 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 notice 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 by 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; 2 in passenger and 2 in cargo configuration. Cubana was the first operator of the Il-96 outside of Russia. Cubana also recently just ordered 3 IL-96-400s, in conjunction with a deal forgiving some of Cuba’s debt to the Russia. CU operates western aircraft as well, including 4 Airbus A320-200s. Iberia assists in maintaining their western-built aircraft. It has operated Boeing 737s and Douglas DC-10s in the fairly recent past.  Cubana operated up to 28 IL-62 and IL-62Ms from 1979, but the last IL-62M was retired in 2011. The Yak-40 and 42s have been retired. If it hasn’t been retired already, the sole remaining airworthy Tu-154 is only occasionally used for charters, backups, and the rare flight to Venezuela and Cancun.

Cubana has 4 Tupolev Tu-204s in their fleet. The Boeing 757 look-alike Tu-204s were first delivered in 2007; 2 in passenger and 2 in cargo configuration. The passenger versions seat 12 in First and 212 economy.

Cubana was the first operator of the wide-body Ilyushin Il-96 outside of Russia. Cubana also recently just ordered 3 IL-96-400s to supplement its fleet of 3 IL-96-300s. CU operates these on their Intercontinental routes to Europe such as Moscow, Paris, Madrid and London.They seat 18 in First Class “Tropical Class” and 244 in Economy.

Cubana has 4 Tupolev Tu-204s in their fleet. The Boeing 757 look-alike Tu-204s were first delivered in 2007; 2 in passenger and 2 in cargo configuration. The passenger versions seat 12 in First and 212 economy. Cubana was the first operator of the wide-body Ilyushin Il-96 outside of Russia. Cubana also recently just ordered 3 IL-96-400s to supplement its fleet of 3 IL-96-300s. CU operates these on their Intercontinental routes to Europe such as Moscow, Paris, Madrid and London. They seat 18 in First Class “Tropical Class” and 244 in Economy.

Cubana performs much of its own maintenance at its HAV base but heavy checks for its western-built aircraft are undertaken by Iberia of Spain while the Russian built airline are sent overseas as well. 2 of Cubana’s Ilyushin IL-96-300s are seen in the hanger.

The past and future of Cubana are seen in this shot: An Ilyushin 62 which was the mainstay of Cubana’s Intercontinental fleet from the late 1970s until they were finally retired in 2010/11. In the background is a TU-204, the Russian 757 look-alike. Cubana received the first of its 4 TU-204s in 2007.

The Ilyushin IL-18D is the largest airliner flown by Havana based Aerocaribbean. This example mainly flies cargo while the airline relies on ATR-42s and ATR-72s for passenger flights.

Lisbon, Portugal based charter airlines EuroAtlantic operates 3 Boeing 767-300 ERs. This is the sole western wide-body we saw during our visit to Havana.

We block 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 deplane 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 breeze through customs. The Cuban immigration and customs officer are 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.

American Airlines and American Eagle operate services between Miami and Havana. The Eagle ATR flights have switched to ERJs. Mainline services use 737-800s.

The ramp at Havana’s Terminal 2

Once our luggage finally showed up at baggage claim, immigration and customs into Cuba was surprisingly efficient, quick, and friendly.

The chaotic curbside seen at Terminal 2, HAV’s terminal dedicated to charter flights to the United States, is partially due to the fact that passengers are not allowed into the small terminal until 2 hours before their departures. Many relatives and friends gather for emotional farewells and welcome’s here. The terminal, which opened in 1988, was renovated and expanded in 2010.

 

 

Let’s begin our tour of José Martí International with a little bit of history. HAV 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 Tri-motor to Santiago de Cuba on the east side of the island via Santa Clara, Moron, and Camaguey. Cubana flew the first international flight from HAV 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 a Douglas DC-4. The United States carrier’s influx of service began in the late 1940s and 1950s. They were joined by other international airlines: Iberia, KLM, LACSA of Costa Rica, Mexicana, and Aeropostal of Venezuela. 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 U.S. built jets but owing to the later embargo, never took delivery of them and turned to Russian built equipment.

A Cubana route map from 1955 when Douglas DC-3s and DC-4s were the backbone of the fleet.

Historic images and milestones from Cubana’s 1979 “50th Anniversary” Brochure.

 

 

Cubana operated up to 28 Ilyushin IL-62 and IL-62Ms from 1979, but the last IL-62M was retired in 2011 as the airline updated its fleet with newer western types and took delivery of Russian widebody IL-96-300s. This image appeared in the airline’s 1979 50th Anniversary brochure.

 

Cubana began flying the Tupelov 154s in the mid 1970s on routes throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and Canada until these thirsty, but reliable aircraft were retired around 2010. These workhorses were replaced by TU-204s and Airbus A320s. This illustration is from Cubana’s 50th Anniversary brochure.

 

The first Soviet-built aircraft were delivered in the early 1960s, the Ilyushin Il-14 and Il-18 pictured here. Cubana became the first airline in the Americas to operate Soviet-built aircraft.

 

An illustration of a Yakovlev Yak-40 from Cubana’s 50th Anniversary brochure. Cubana began operating the Yak-40 and Yak-42 jets in the mid-1970s. These aircraft made it possible to upgrade Cubana’s domestic services and to expand or start new services to Central and South America, and to some Caribbean nations. The passenger cabin has a could seat 24-27 passengers in the standard three-abreast configuration, although 32 passengers can be carried by switching to four-abreast. Passengers boarded aircraft via a set of ventral airstairs in the rear fuselage.

 

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 day before the CIA’s failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. Cuba’s relationship grew much closer to the Soviet Union and 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 beginning in 1989 and the Soviet Union, these airlines and their government support began to abandon Cuba, leaving Cubana as the main player here. Mexicana, Aeromexico, Air Jamaica, Varig, Iberia, Cayman Airways, Bahamasair, and other Latin American carriers stepped in to fill the void, even though the tourism infrastructure was basically non-existent.

Colorful anti-American language is vivid in Cubana’s 1979 “50th Anniversary” Brochure.

Cubana’s destinations throughout most of its era when it was aligned with the Eastern Bloc consisted of many rogue and Communist nations.

A Cubana route map and timetable from 1996. Cubana ended its service to the United States in 1960, before even U.S. carriers were forced to discontinue their flights.

A Cubana route map and timetable from 1996. Cubana ended its service to the United States in 1960, before even U.S. carriers were forced to discontinue their flights. During this time IL-62s and TU-154s made up the bulk of Cubana’s Intercontinental fleet, though they also operated leased DC-10s.

 

Present day José Martí Airport is located in a municipality known as Boyeros about 30 minutes from Central Havana. It has a single 13,000 foot runway which is the longest in Cuba, and can accommodate aircraft up to the size of the Antonov AN-225 and as fast as Concorde which visited back in 1997 on a special charter. There are 4 terminals currently in use at HAV: 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.

The ramp of Havana’s Terminal 1 and a Boeing 737 on the stand. Boarding at HAV is done via stairs at all terminals, except for the International Terminal 3.

 

Havana’s Airport is named after José Martí , the Cuban National Hero who was a key figure in the planning and execution of the Spanish/American War, which resulted in Cuba’s independence. He was also the key designer of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and its ideology.

Terminal 1, the oldest terminal at HAV, 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.

 

The curbside facade of Jose Marti Terminal 1, the oldest terminal at HAV, is decidedly a time-warp.

The check-in and ticketing of HAV’s Terminal 1, the airport’s oldest terminal, has been updated but still retains its “1960s charm”.

The check-in and ticketing of HAV’s Terminal 1, the airport’s oldest terminal, has been updated but still retains its “1960s charm”.

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 2 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, bookstore, duty-free shop, and a simple upstairs VIP lounge. 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.

 A Classic 1957 Chevy Bel-Air at the curbside of Havana’s Terminal 1


HAV Terminal 2 has a number of restaurants, bars, tourist offices, and rental car agencies in an open-air layout.

The ticketing hall of Terminal 2, which is used primarily for the charter flights to the United States. Only ticketed passengers are allowed in, but due to its small size and nature of its traffic, it is very busy.

The departures lounge of Terminal 2 is a busy, busy place as passengers wait for often prolonged times for their flights to the United States. Instead of a concourse, the gates all share 1 large waiting area. The scant amenities include a snack bar, duty free, small VIP lounge, souvenir shop, and bookstore.

Located adjacent to Terminal 2 is Terminal 3. T3, inaugurated in 1998 and built by the Canadians, 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 themselves “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 ticketing kiosks and Internet ticketing, this scene is a mad house. The Cubana ticket counters do feature AvGeek cool murals of their Russian-built aircraft. Cubana’s international destinations in Europe, Latin America, North America, and Europe including Bogota, Buenos Aires, Cancun, 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. Copa of Panama is the busiest international operator at HAV. Other international airlines servicing Havana include Air Canada, Aeroflot, Air Europa, Air France, Avianca, Bahamasair, Blue Panorama, Cayman, Condor, LCC InterJet of Mexico, KLM, Lacsa, Lan Peru, TACA, TAME, and Virgin Atlantic who 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’s 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.

The curbside of the bizarre and intentionally imposing International Terminal 3, built in 1998, combines early 1980s glass and steel architecture with 1960s Brutalism. A combo not easy on the eyes.

Unsurprisingly, Cubana dominates operations at Havana Jose Marti. Their ticketing takes up half of all space in Terminal 3, the newest at HAV.

Photos of Cubana’s fleet provide an interesting backdrop to their ticket counters in terminal 3 at HAV Terminal 3.

Photos of Cubana’s fleet provide an interesting backdrop to their ticket counters in terminal 3 at HAV Terminal 3.

The nearly deserted shared ticketing area of Havana’s International Terminal 3.

The SkyTeam KLM/Air France ticket booth at Havana is quite modest.

Virgin Atlantic, serving London Gatwick, doesn’t have a Club House at Havana Airport, but does have its own dedicated lounge on the departures level at Terminal 3 before immigration.

The tarmac of Havana’s bizarre International Terminal 3 seen from the airport’s only runway. This unusual, to say the least, building was constructed with help from the Canadians and dedicated in 1998. This is the only terminal at HAV with jet bridges.

Terminal 5 is mainly used by Havana based Aerocaribbean. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit this facility. It was used for a time for U.S. charters during the renovation of Terminal 2. José Martí Airport opened its first cargo terminal in 2002. This relatively large refrigerated facility is operated by Air Freight Logistics Enterprise. Cargo operators here include Aerocaribbean, Cubana, DHL Express, IBC, and Sky King. Of course, UPS and Fed-Ex aren’t present here.

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.

Havana’s current ATC Tower opened around the same time as Terminal 3, replacing the tower cab located above Terminal 1.

Cuba and José Martí Airport are indeed a time warp but there are sings 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.

 

Cuba is definitely not a shopping mecca. My lone AvGeek souvenir was this paper mache Cubana model airliner.

Our group from Temple Beth Shalom in Miami Beach gives a farewell tour at the snack bar at Havana Airport Terminal 2′s snack bar. The only things on the menu are beer, rum, ham sandwiches, and hamburgers. With the beef looking decidedly sketchier then the ham, keeping kosher was a challenge.

Additional Resources

Full photo gallery of our trip to Cuba on Flickr here.

Full photo gallery of José Martí Airport here.

Fascinating Cubana 50th Anniversary Booklet here.

Cubana Route Maps and Timetable here.

Aeroflot and Russian aircraft memorabilia here.

Aeroflot timetables and route maps here.

 

 

 

 

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