Crash of Old Jet Reflects a Cuban Airline in Crisis
Posted May 19, 2018 8:28 p.m. EDT
Updated May 19, 2018 8:29 p.m. EDT
MEXICO CITY — Almost 40 years old by the time it crashed Friday just outside of Havana, killing 110 people, the aging Boeing 737 had changed ownership nearly a half-dozen times, passing from operators in the United States to Canada, from Cameroon to the Caribbean.
“I actually flew that exact plane,” said John Cox, head of the consultancy Safety Operating Systems, who traced the aircraft’s ownership back to 1979, when it was new and belonged to Piedmont Airlines, his former employer.
Although the cause of the crash has not been determined, the plane itself is a powerful symbol of Cuba’s troubled aviation industry. As tourism to the island surges, Cuba’s national airline finds itself struggling to acquire enough planes to meet the demand and maintain its decrepit fleet.
Cuba’s economy has long been in shambles, and experts say the troubles plaguing its aviation sector stem from the same obstacles that have bedeviled the country for decades: economic mismanagement and the U.S. embargo of the island.
Cuba’s problems have gotten so bad that, a few weeks ago, the country grounded most of its domestic flights because of safety concerns over its fleet. To keep the aviation sector flying, officials have been forced to lease planes from foreign outfits that sometimes use decades-old planes, like the one that crashed and burned right after takeoff Friday, killing nearly everyone on board.
The old Boeing 737 had been leased to Cubana de Aviación, the state airline, by a relatively unknown Mexican company with just three aircraft in its fleet. Some aviation industry analysts were taken aback at the plane’s advanced age.
“That’s one of the oldest passenger jets I have heard of that is still in service,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group, an aviation and aerospace consulting company in Fairfax, Virginia.
Although Mexican officials said the plane had passed safety inspections as recently as November, it is one of just 100 of its model still in circulation across the globe, reflecting the limited options the Cuban government has in order to continue operating its state airline.
“Whether the airline is going to survive is an open question,” said George Farinas, a retired Delta pilot who works as a civil aviation inspector and is writing a book about the history of Cubana de Aviación. “They are in a major crisis right now.”
Farinas said that Cuban officials even decided in the past against working with the Mexican company, Damojh Aerolíneas, also known as Global Air, after the flight crew that came with the lease got lost in the air on one trip. But they eventually reversed the decision, he said, “probably out of desperation.”
Adel Yzquierdo Rodríguez, Cuba’s transportation minister, said Saturday that Cubana had been renting the plane for less than a month from Damojh and that, under the rental arrangement, the Mexican owner was responsible for the aircraft’s maintenance.
Analysts sometimes disagree about which is more to blame for Cuba’s troubled aviation industry: the U.S. embargo of the island or the country’s own history of economic mismanagement.
Some experts say the sanctions have crippled the nation’s ability to gain access to the vendors and financing needed to get new aircraft. The Cubans themselves have made the case numerous times, blaming the decades-old sanctions for their aging planes, which include Russian-made aircraft that are difficult to find parts for.
“If it were not for the embargo, they would be able to access a robust capital market for financing Western aircraft,” said Samuel Engel, senior vice president at ICF Consulting and an expert in the international airline industry.
But many analysts say that, while a process is involved, Cuba can indeed get access to such markets, as well as planes.
“The embargo does play a role in inhibiting business with Cuba, but there are policies to promote the sale of aircraft,” said Dallas Woodrum, an associate at Akin Gump in the firm’s Washington office. “Whether businesses decide to take advantage of that is a different question, and a matter of their risk tolerance and what type of reward they see.”
Cuba also suffers from a cash flow problem that further hinders the purchase of international goods — a product of the sanctions but also, critics say, its poor stewardship of the economy.
“The challenge is that they don’t manage the industry well,” said Emilio Morales, president of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group, which focuses on the Cuban economy. “The business requires capital; it requires financing to maintain the planes.” Founded in 1929, Cubana de Aviación was once the pride of the Caribbean, replete with modern planes and top-flight maintenance. But as with so many elements of Cuba’s infrastructure and transportation, that progress began to slowly, and then suddenly, halt following the revolution, economic sanctions and, later, the fall of the Soviet Union, which had helped keep the nation afloat financially.
Cars hailing from the 1960s roll down pockmarked streets, past unpainted buildings and under worn bridges. And while the government has maintained its commitment to social services, whether free health care or education, money has grown scarce.
That reality has set in for the airline industry, leaving the state airline with limited options to upgrade old planes or get new ones.
Cubana has struggled with a spotty safety record in the past — including several crashes in the late 1990s that left scores dead. The tragedies include crashes in Ecuador, Guatemala, Venezuela and off the island’s southeast coast.
Friday’s crash occurred just after noon, following the plane’s departure from Havana for the eastern city of Holguín. Emergency workers and nearby residents raced to the scene, where the battered remnants of the plane kicked up plumes of thick smoke, trying to rescue survivors.
Ramiro Santana Martínez, 46, a construction worker who lives about 50 yards from the crash site, said he was near his house when he heard an explosion, quickly followed by a second one.
He joined neighbors and strangers who converged on the smoldering husk of the plane, looking for survivors. Santana said charred bodies, some dismembered, were scattered across the site; some had been thrown clear of the wreckage.
A volunteer rescuer spotted movement under some fallen branches: a woman’s hand. Santana and others rushed to help pull the crying woman out and get her to an ambulance. She was burned and bloodied but conscious.
Santana said he also helped pull out two other people, both men, who were breathing at the time but inert. Cuban officials said three women ended up surviving the crash, although they were listed in “extreme critical” condition Saturday.
Yzquierdo, the transportation minister, said that among the 110 dead were 99 Cuban passengers, two Argentine passengers and two passengers from a disputed area of the Western Sahara.
Speaking at a news conference, Yzquierdo said that 15 victims had been identified so far, including 10 adults and five children.
The Cuban Council of Churches said the victims also included a group of 18 people who had traveled to a seminary in Havana.
Those on board the plane included five crew members, all Mexican. As part of its contract, Cubana hired them to operate the aircraft, an agreement known as a wet lease. There was no specific mention of their condition as of Saturday afternoon, but the three survivors identified by the Cuban government did not include the crew members. Leticia Nuñez, the sister of the flight’s captain, Jorge Luis Nuñez Santos, said her family had heard only the information reported in the media and had not received further details from Mexican authorities. Nuñez said she assumed the worst but was still waiting for official confirmation.
“Sometimes crew members change, someone gets in late — we don’t lose hope, we can’t,” she said in an interview over Facebook.
Abigail Hernández, another Mexican crew member, posted a picture on her Facebook page last February in which she is seen standing and smiling in front of a red telephone box, with the comment: “Happy to get to know the world.”
The transportation minister explained that it was “normal” for the Cuban government to rent airplanes.
“Why?” he asked rhetorically. “Because it’s convenient and also because of the problem of the embargo we face, which means we sometimes can’t buy planes, the planes we need, and we have to rent them.”