Cuba's national carrier Cubana has a serious problem: It needs more aircraft to respond to the growing tourist industry in its homeland, but the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba makes it impossible for the airline to buy aircraft that contain more than 10% U.S.-made components.
Consequently, Cubana's current fleet consists of so-called Eastern types, and now it had added one more. The airline took delivery of its first Antonov An-158 regional jet last month.
The aircraft arrived in Havana on April 22 and is expected to be deployed on scheduled services in May on flights to Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba. The aircraft has a single-class passenger cabin layout that offers 97 seats at a 30-in. pitch. In this configuration it has a range of 2,500 km (1,550 mi.). Cubana requested English signage for the cockpit and that the landing weight be increased.
The An-158—the stretched version of the An-148—made its first flight in 2010 on its way to gaining certification by the Commonwealth of Independent States-wide Interstate Aviation Committee of Russia in 2011. The newer aircraft is 1.7 meters (5.5 ft.) longer than the baseline variant.
Cubana is scheduled to receive two more An-158s this summer based on a 2011 contract with Russian leasing companyFinance Co. Plans are to operate the new jets on domestic routes as well as on flights to Cancun, Mexico, and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. In February, the Cuban carrier signed an option for three more aircraft of this type. IFC CEO Alexander Rubtzov says these could be delivered in mid-2014.
The airline also operates three Ilyushin Il-96-300 widebodies, one of which is used for government flights, and four Tupolev Tu-204 narrowbodies—two freighters and two passenger aircraft. All were delivered in the late 2000s. The airline has phased out its aging Antonov An-24 turboprops and Ilyushin Il-62 single-aisles in favor of the An-158s.
The airline is also adding to its capacity by renting Western types. According to Arturo Vigoa, deputy technical director, the airline is currently renting four, one A319 and is considering up to three . But finding a rental company to go against the U.S. embargo is not so simple. “It's also not stable as these contracts can be suddenly terminated, so our position is to rely on Russian and Ukrainian aircraft,” says Vigoa. The average monthly flight time for Il-96s and Tu-204s is approximately 300 hr.; the An-158 logs about 250 hr.
According to Ramon Martinez, president of Corporacion de la Aviacion Cubana S.A. (Cacsa), a government holding company that includes Cubana—the nation's largest airline—along with the country's airports and traffic control service, the carrier has a clear mission to bring more international tourists to Cuba and be able to fly them around the island nation's resorts and throughout the Caribbean region. The long-haul part of the network is operated by Il-96s and Tu-204s while the domestic routes will be handled by the new An-158s.
Cubana carried 700,000 tourists in 2012 and a 5% increase is eyed for this year. Cuba has 10 international airports that can receive large aircraft. Most of the tourists come from Canada and Argentina. The carrier is introducing flights to Sao Paulo in July. The airline also flies to Madrid and Paris. Martinez says Cubana wants to add Moscow to the roster, but needs more modern aircraft to compete with's and Transaero's Western-type airliners on this route.
Cubana is in talks with IFC about a possible order of two Il-96-400s and three Tu-204SMs. But Cubana's plans depend on the development of these two programs. The Il-96-400—a stretched version of the basic Il-96 with improved operational efficiency—currently exists only in a cargo version. Its conversion to the passenger variant will require significant design and certification efforts. The Tu-204SM, a variant with improved avionics and engines, is the midst of certification trials.
Operating an Eastern fleet means Cubana must boost its maintenance expertise. “We need to be more accurate and skilled while operating the Russian types,” says Vigoa. “Their component reliability is not comparable to Western types.” The airline has trained up to 100 technicians in Russia and has line maintenance teams at all major airports. In-depth checks are made at the main base, Havana Jose Marti International Airport. However, Cubana does not perform heavy checks and engine repair as its employees lack the necessary level of training.