Flight CU188, a twin-jet Airbus A320 on its way from the Caribbean to Canada, looks no different than the 5,000 other commercial planes flying through U.S. airspace —except maybe for that red, white and blue livery that looks straight out of the swingin’ ’60s. In fact, this flight is anything but typical: Even in an emergency, the crew can’t land in the U.S. If it did, there’s a good chance that local marshals would seize the plane.
That’s because the Airbus flies for Cubana de Aviación, the official airline of Cuba. The deal that the U.S. and Cuba brokered two years ago to normalize relations should have sent the Caribbean carrier soaring into the lucrative blue yonder of the American market. Instead, the airline is being dragged down by lingering issues from the 60-year-old trade embargo, including potential seizure of Cuban assets — like the Airbus — to settle U.S. claims to recover assets confiscated by the Castro regime. Meanwhile, in the past six months, Cubana has had to watch from the sidelines as 10 U.S. carriers zip back and forth between the two countries on about 40 daily round trips.
Additional turbulence may ground whatever plans Cubana has to tap into its northern neighbor’s massive travel market and earn desperately needed revenue and hard currency. In November then-president-elect Trump tweeted: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate [the] deal.”
The president may have been out of step with the American public. A Pew Research survey released a few weeks after Trump’s tweet revealed that 75 percent of respondents approve of steps taken to restore relations with Cuba. “The momentum among American travelers for unfettered access to Cuba continues,” says Ninan Chacko, the CEO of Travel Leaders Group, a consortium of high-end travel agencies.
When the U.S. and Cuba agreed to resume diplomatic relations in late 2014, air service was an integral part of the discussions. A longtime State Department hand, who helped negotiate aviation treaties with former foes like China, says “it’s almost unprecedented” that a country wouldn’t want its state-owned airline to benefit from any increase in air traffic. As a former official, the Foggy Bottom veteran spoke on background, but confirmed that Cubana does in fact now have the right to fly to the U.S.; however, the airline first wants the legal situation clarified. (The Cuban embassy did not respond to requests for comment.)
Most U.S. business leaders believe that full trade and tourism ultimately will resume, and that Cubana will become a customer for U.S. companies, such as aerospace suppliers — avionics from Honeywell, jet engines from General Electric and Pratt & Whitney and jets from Boeing.
Once dubbed the world’s most dangerous airline for a string of fatal crashes decades ago, Cubana could use a serious upgrade. Although the roughly 20-plane fleet includes a few leased Airbus jets, it consists mainly of Russian-built Antonov, Ilyushin and Tupolev aircraft, a sort of “Aeroflot of the Caribbean.” In safety matters, at least, its performance has improved.
Certainly, other airlines have successfully shed their communist-era reps. Vietnam Airlines is gunning to be the second-biggest full-service airline in Southeast Asia with a fleet of Boeing Dreamliners and Airbus A350s. For Cubana to pull off a similar Cinderella feat, it will need to clean up its customer service act to go along with a new, improved fleet. (It typically ranks near the bottom in customer surveys on TripAdvisor and the U.K. review site Skytrax.) A cautionary tale: China’s state-owned airlines had to give flight attendants “smiling lessons” when the carriers began flying to the U.S. and other Western destinations.
As long as Cubana declines to land in the U.S., American fliers won’t have to deal with the airline’s sketchy service. The trade embargo continues to prohibit Americans from traveling to Cuba as mere tourists — they must fall within 12 categories, including Cuban-Americans seeing relatives and those traveling for humanitarian, journalistic and other high-minded reasons. The red tape meant just 614,000 Americans visited Cuba last year — the majority were traveling to see family. “There are still a lot of restrictions in place,” says Tom Popper, head of Insight Cuba, a New Rochelle, N.Y.-based tour operator.
Those restrictions may have been a factor in the decision made by several carriers in early January to start cutting back flights, just months after they eagerly jumped into the Cuban market: Their forecasts may have been overly optimistic, and there were reports of planes departing with less than 30 percent of seats filled. “It was like striking oil,” Popper says. “Everyone wanted to get in on it. But the demand just isn’t there yet.”
By contrast, a cheap beach vacation with no strings attached is just the ticket for Canadians, who travel to Cuba in droves, many of them flying on Cubana for its bargain fares. “The Canadian market sees Cuba as a sort of budget option,” an alternative to high-priced destinations in the region, Popper says, adding that this reputation also could be a draw for Americans, although hotel rates rose sharply last year because of a shortage of rooms. Overall, travel to Cuba surged to around four million foreign visitors last year, almost double from five years ago. Hotel companies like Marriott’s Starwood want to get in on that action and have already signed management deals to run properties there.
New legislation may provide a fresh impetus: The Cuba Trade Act would permit private-sector industries to trade freely with Cuba, effectively lifting the embargo. “For 55 years, the Cuban embargo has failed,” says James Williams, the head of the nonprofit Engage Cuba. “The notion that it will work in year 56 is the definition of insanity.”
If the bill passes — and Trump doesn’t veto it — look for that distinctive Cubana livery on a vintage plane landing soon at an airport near you.