Cubana looks to expand in new hub southwest of Havana

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Cuba's government is considering creating a new hub for flag carrier Cubana following the expansion of its Russian-sourced fleet.

During a recent visit by Russian premier Dmitry Medvedev to Havana, local authorities identified an airfield in San Antonio-de-los Banos, 30km southwest of the capital, as capable of handling long-haul passenger and cargo aircraft.

The former airforce base has three paved runways which are 3.6km, 2.5km and 2.4km long. A source close to the talks said the two sides agreed to assess the facility with a view to Cubana establishing it as a base for future expansion.

Last week the airline received the first serial Antonov An-158 through lessor Ilyushin Finance. A further two An-158s are due to arrive in the summer.

Cubana intends to firm an option for three more Ukrainian-built twinjets shortly. Delivery is scheduled for the third quarter of 2014, says Ilyushin Finance.

"We'll deploy the first An-158 on domestic routes from Havana to Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba," says Cubana's director, Manuel Lopez Bello.

"The second and third aircraft will be used for flights to Cancun in Mexico and Santo-Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Initially, we expect them to be airborne 250h a month. They will replace all of our An-24 and An-26 turboprops eventually."

Ramon Martinez Echevarria, president of the country's aviation authority, says Cubana has undertaken a task to help develop the tourist industry, which is a major source of revenue for the country.

"To fulfil this task, there is a substantial ground infrastructure, including 10 airports certified to handle international flights," he says. "Cubana will focus on serving leisure destinations not only domestically but in the Caribbean region and Latin America too."

The carrier is looking to increase its presence in the transatlantic market using its three Ilyushin Il-96-300s. It currently deploys them on twice weekly services to Paris and Madrid, as well as for cross-border charter flights.

But Echevarria says plans are in hand to increase its long-haul capacity by acquiring up to three converted Il-96-400s, provided that demand is sufficient. "We're discussing this with Ilyushin Finance and should make a decision by year-end," he adds.

Cubana transported about 900,000 passengers in 2012, according to Bello. He notes that the utilisation rate for both the Il-96 and the Tupolev Tu-204 is 300h a month.

To enhance its medium-range capacity, the flag carrier has placed a tentative order for two modernised Tu-204SM variants, pending completion of type validation tests.