90 Years Of Cubana – How The Cuban Airline Still Stands Tall Today

Cubana de Aviación to return to Argentina next month

HAVANAS, Oct. 14th Last week, Cubana de Aviación celebrated its 90th birthday. The flag carrier of Cuba has gone on to have a colorful journey since being founded on October 8, 1929.

The company started under the moniker of Compañía Nacional Cubana de Aviación Curtiss S.A. This was initially a flying school that also provided charter services. The firm was closely associated with Curtiss aircraft manufacturing, from which it partnered with for its early fleet.

The high-wing monoplane, Curtiss Robin, was the preferred choice of aircraft by the airline. The young carrier also used the amphibian plane, Sikorsky S-38, the Ford Trimotor, and the Lockheed Electra models. 

Foreign influence

Following the success of its regular scheduled services, Pan American World Airways took 100% control of Cubana in 1932. Subsequently, the United States-based outfit dropped the word Curtiss from the title of its new acquisition. Caribbean aviation markets had started to emerge and much like its stake in Avianca at the time, Pan Am bought Cubana to assert its influence in Latin America.

During this period, the majority of Cubana’s income came from operating Cuba’s mail services. Due to the cost of flying at the time, only the rich could afford it. Therefore much of the country’s population didn’t travel by air. Most of Cubana’s passengers were businessmen and wealthy professionals. 

These operations saw the expansion of travel to other parts of the nation, allowing previously remote cities to become part of the aviation network. As the 1940s came around, Cubana had a fleet of 12 airliners, which were flown by pilots trained by Cuba’s new Civil Aviation school.

Curtiss Robin
The American made, Curtiss Robin was an early favorite of Cubana’s. Photo: Visitor7 via Wikimedia Commons

National interest

Pan Am’s stake in Cubana was reduced to only 42% as a result of a sale to Cuban investors in 1944. This gave the airline the right to be called a primarily Cuban airline, giving a sense of patriotism for the country.

Thereafter, the carrier became a founding member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This organization came about due to a conference that was held in Havana in April 1945, affirming Cuba’s influence in global aviation at the time.

A month later, Cubana launched its first scheduled international flights from its capital to Miami with Douglas DC-3 airliners. This move meant that the company was the first in Latin America to operate scheduled passenger services to the Florida city. The route gave way to new industries in tourism as now Cubans could easily visit cities across the sea.

On the back of international breakthroughs, Cubana started transatlantic services to Madrid before expanding to Rome. The airline then became a true Cuban brand when Pan Am sold the rest of its shares in 1954. As the airline continued to grow, it started its inflight magazine, titled Aeroguía Cubana.

This publication helped grow other industries within Cuba as it contained directories for local restaurants, museums and cultural hot spots. Popular Cuban brands such as rum manufacturer Bacardi sponsored the magazine, opening up new, global opportunities.

Super Constellation-1953
A depiction of a Cubana Super Constellation in 1953. Photo: Emalec via Wikimedia Commons

Cold War conflict

Despite progression during the 1950s, the rise of the 26th of July Movement initially harmed the carrier. Three Cubana planes were hijacked in this period of the Cuban struggle. One of the incidents occurred in 1958 and caused 17 fatalities and the loss of a Viscount VV-755.

However, once Fidel Castro was in power, he valued Cubana as a huge asset for the country. The airline’s ability to assist in building foreign relations made it an important entity for the new regime. Castro soon merged Cubana with three other operators and nationalized the airline to make it the official flag carrier.

During this time, many of Cuba’s skilled professionals left for Florida, giving way to many gaps in personnel. Tensions also grew with the US as part of the Cold War, where Cuba had a huge alignment with the Soviet Union. Subsequently, the CIA executed the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, grounding all Cubana aircraft. One of the airline’s Douglas DC-3 aircraft was also destroyed during the bombardment.

This period also saw another rise of hijacking attempts on Cubana’s new Soviet-backed aircraft due to the US’ policies giving incentives to hijackers. Hijackers were given automatic asylum to the US to increase instability within Cuba.

Cubana Britannia B
A Cubana Britannia, which was used in 1958. Photo Emalec via Wikimedia Commons

Still standing

Despite facing tough struggles during the Cold War, Cubana managed to continue operating and came out of the conflict even stronger. The US continued its embargo on Cubana, with a ban over US airspace still in place throughout the 1990s. These battles did not stop the operator from serving over 35 international cities across the Americas and in Europe.

By the time the millennium hit, the carrier started renovation on its Russian and Ukrainian aircraft. According to Planespotters, the company now operates six An-158 aircraft, four Illyushin 11-96s, four Tupolev Tu-204s. The company also holds two French ATR-72s, bringing its fleet size to 12 airliners.

The firm has seen it all over the years. It saw alignments with the US, World War II, conflict with the US and the fall of the Soviet Union. Following the passing of Fidel Castro three years ago, there has been small progress in diplomacy between Cuba and the US. As tourism in Cuba continues to grow, Cubana may see itself leading in new markets as we head into the next decade.