Cubana Airlines

Cubana Airlines

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Flying the Cubana way

Jan 14, 2006 (Updated May 29, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The unscheduled entertainment and that we got there in one piece.

Cons:Delays, poor food, dirty plane, lack of service...

The Bottom Line: Fly Cubana, and you too will some tales to tell your friends and family...


The swarthy fight attendant suddenly halted mid step down the aisle of the plane, his luxuriant moustache twitching.

On take off, a couple of the overhead lockers had sprung open in sympathetic response to the shudder and rattle of the aged plane travelling at full pelt down the runway. The attendant had noticed the open lockers and had assumed a passenger had opened them while the seatbelt signs were on. His angry eyes darted slowly from passenger to passenger.

My beloved’s and my eyes met for a moment, and we had to suppress a fit of the giggles as the attendant fixed his deadly glare upon us. He slammed the lockers shut, and marched on, eyes still seeking the miscreant.

It was going to be a long flight…


Cubana

Cubana is the Cuban national airline, which recently celebrated 75 years in (and out) of the air. Since 1981, 8 of its roughly third of a million flights have resulted in disaster. This gives a failure rate of 24 flights per million, a figure which places Cubana firmly at the foot of the airline safety stats. While even this tally provides some positive perspective about just how safe air travel is, many European carriers boast a figure of around 1 per million, and North American ones are often slightly safer still.

Of course, statistics can tell you everything and nothing, and it’s probably a little unfair to let the figures simply speak for themselves. Many of Cubana’s internal and shorter flights used to use aged Russian built aircraft, and Cubana could no longer get parts for these planes after the collapse of the old Soviet Union. Cubana have now taken the worst of these planes out of service (and of course, a couple unilaterally decided to take themselves out of use mid flight).

Cubana’s transatlantic flights tend to use lease planes, and a company joint owned by Cubana and the Spanish airline, Iberia usually maintain them. Meanwhile, the so-called war on terrorism may have had a negative impact on the safety of western carriers.

Last summer, we took three flights with Cubana – London Gatwick to Holguin, Holguin to Havana and Havana to Gatwick. All of these flights were strictly speaking international, as our “internal” hop over the island used the same flight number as from Gatwick.

Cubana had recently started using planes for this route, leased through Air Atlanta Europe. This is a company owned by the Avion Group. The group are Icelandic and have 57 aircraft. They also run Excel Air, well known in the UK for its charter holiday flights. A muddled mixture of Cuban, British and Icelandic aircrew staffed our flight.


A bumpy start

Unfortunately, our Cubana experience didn’t get off to a bright start when at check in we were automatically issued with a 5 meal voucher each. Our flight was scheduled to be a little over 3 hours late, which apparently is fairly standard for Cubana.

Check in was friendly and efficient, and we were pleased to get a window seat and learn that the plane was to be at about 60% capacity (meaning extra stretch room for those of us in the cheap seats!).

The original flight times were already pretty lousy, and the delay would mean that our arrival at Holguin would now happen some time after midnight, before we could commence our 90-minute transfer to our hotel bed.

Cubana’s internal hop flight was two hours late. With our return flight, Cubana managed to grasp timing defeat from the claws of victory by making us sit on the runway for an hour while they checked a mismatch on the number of passengers.

Other tourists arriving on the weekend flight (we left mid week), found that the flight from Gatwick was so late, the plane flew straight to Havana leaving passengers going to Holguin having to catch an additional internal flight.

While we waited at our gate for final check in at Gatwick, a furious row between one of the ground staff and an elderly woman entertained us. She had managed to wheedle over 70 kg of luggage onto the plane without excess charge and had now been on a spending spree at the airport, and had another mountain of luggage that she was now expecting to bring into the plane as hand luggage. Who’d work at an airport?

As we boarded the plane, another angry row simmered as the ground staff argued with a Cubana aircrew member about whether he had been checking passenger’s passports and boarding passes well enough. I heard one of the ground staff saying that they were going to check everyone’s documents anyway, as it was their neck on the line if anything went wrong. As a nervous flyer, the exchange hardly instilled confidence. The ground staff must hate this chaotic perpetually late runner!


Getting choppier

My confidence in the flight plummeted further, when on finally boarding the plane, we discovered that the check in staff had been using a different seating plan to that existing on the plane. This meant that some passengers had seat numbers on their tickets that simply didn’t exist on the plane!

The Cubana cabin crew first directed us in the wrong direction, but we actually found our seats after about five minutes. Those without seats were told to “find a seat anywhere”. Of course, this caused further confusion as subsequent passengers with seats that corresponded to seats on the plane found them occupied!

It took over an hour to get everyone seated.

On a more positive note, the crew completed the safety instructions accurately, although again a fellow holidaymaker told me that on their flight out, the crew were learning how to open the aircraft doors while waiting to take off!

We also found the crew getting a little happier and friendlier as we went through our flight. Perhaps they were simply as anxious about take off as I was.


The plane

Our plane was a Boeing 747-300 in a 3-4-3 configuration. Our seats were towards the front of the plane, and were actually very wide and with an adequate amount of legroom. The plane was tidy and didn’t look too worn from the inside. The seats at the back of the plane appeared to be different, and were more cramped and more tightly squashed together. Internet research revealed that our plane was first in the air in 1983, and had a number of different owners prior to Air Atlanta Europe & Cubana.

It’s probably also worth a mention that for the Holguin- Havana hop, the plane had just travelled from London, but during its hour long wait in Holguin, the plane wasn’t cleaned at all. We arrived to a plane smelling of dirty toilets, and littered with newspapers and used radio headsets. Yummy, just what you need in the early hours of the morning.


Beg, Steal or Borrow - entertainment

The flight entertainment consisted of around five radio channels with approximately 30 minutes of looping music played over the eight plus hours of the flight. As there were two jazz channels and two “euro pop” channels as an alternative, I went for the classical music channel, and was rather perturbed to be welcomed aboard “South Africa Airways” by the programme announcer.

At the front of the plane, we had shared TV screens (the rear of the plane had their own seat back screens). The beautiful Jude Law (who must have been short of cash at the time) soon filled our screens for our entertainment as they showed the 2004 film “The Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”. The rather strange animated backdrop to the film hardly showed up at all on the distant screen. After three false starts, the movie got going. There was another movie on offer, the name I didn’t catch, but it seemed to be some kind of modern Cinderella, and then that terminally boring Just For Laughs, a program I have only ever seen on airlines, and a kind of Euro Candid Camera.

On our Holguin – Havana hour hop, we were in the back of the plane (to enable us to get out through the rear steps and join the bus to the internal terminal, as internal passengers), and got to see the passenger flight information system. While landed at Havana we were apparently still over 1000 kilometres (and an hour) from our destination and 400 foot in the air, so perhaps it wasn’t 100% accurate! More interestingly, was its advert for a Hong Kong airport hotel embedded in its cycle. As Cubana don’t fly to Hong Kong, I presume the program was another piece of someone else’s entertainment system! Meanwhile, the seat back labelling was in Indonesian.

Our flight also contained a few copies of the flight magazine, Sol y Son, a largely Spanish language magazine, but with English print for each article too. The magazine wasn’t a very exciting read, with articles on nature, history, art and tourism, but had some great pictures of Cuba and Cuban art. The article about the pirate who managed to ransack Santiago de Cuba in its early history was interesting enough, as was the tale of the Cuban manatees.

Food, was of below average standard (even for an airline) – the chicken chasseur and pasta salad on our outbound flight was OK, the 3 slivers of sandwich and a luminous glow in the dark cherry muffin for breakfast was sadly lacking. On our return flight, we had a poor roast chicken dinner with a pat of butter that served no meaningful purpose, and then a breakfast of dry bread and ham and cheese! If it happens to you, save the butter, you will need it.

Drinks of any kind were also rather lacking; we chose a glass of Spanish red wine with dinner each flight, but the top up service consisted of the staff whizzing through the plane with an almost empty trolley while avoiding making eye contact.

Well, when I say empty trolley; not quite – as we were at the front of the plane, I spotted the staff laying the full bottles of spirits flat on the trolley, to make it appear empty. I presume this was so they could sell the spirits, back in Cuba. We were also offered little in the way of soft drinks and water for our flight, although at least on out bound, they did come round with orange juice and water a couple of times. I was certainly pleased that I had the presence of mind to remember to buy a couple of bottles of water at the airport.


Nocturnal Comforts

Not for Cubana, the cosy little overnight pack with disposable toothbrush, refreshing wipe et al. No, we were given some headphones (for the aforementioned entertainment), and a small pillow. My beloved’s four requests for a blanket to try to fend off the effects of the ferocious air conditioning system were met with smiles and nods, and no action.

On our return flight, the attendants cheerily woke us up at 2:00AM to present us with a roast Chicken meal and our choice from the drinks trolley. The insomniacs were then treated to a return film… yep, you guessed it, once again, the beautiful Jude Law in the Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Once was bad enough -the film cuts a controversial choice for an in-flight movie, starting as it does with scenes of the Hindenburg disaster!


Summing up

Although staff were eventually friendly enough, this is clearly an airline on a strict budget. I would certainly recommend you take your own supplies if you cannot manage a few hours without good food. Be prepared for your flight to be late. Water is a definite carry on. Be careful how you load the overhead lockers; you may find the contents of the locker on your head during a choppy take off.

If I travel to Cuba again, I will probably look for a flight with one of the charter companies that fly, in preference to using Cubana.

I’ll go for 2 stars overall, mainly for the comfortable seats and legroom, for the fact that they didn’t actually crash, and for the unintentional entertainment during the flight.
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cr01 asserts his right to be associated as the author of this review -2006-

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