Andrzej Jeziorski/HAVANA

European regional aircraft manufacturer ATR has begun delivering aircraft to Cuban carriers, marking the start of a massive fleet renewal programme in response to Cuba's tourist boom.

On 24 June, the Franco-Italian consortium signed a contract with the state-run holding Corporacion de la Aviation Cubana (CACSA) for the acquisition of four secondhand ATR 42-300s - two each for regional carriers Aerocaribbean and Aerogaviota. The first aircraft was handed over to Aerocaribbean on 30 June, while Aerogaviota is to receive its first ATR in November. The Europeans expect to sell a further six aircraft to Cuba in the next two years.

The first aircraft, one of 10 traded back to ATR by American Eagle as part of its upgrade to ATR 72-500s, is 10 years old. The aircraft are being delivered on a lease-purchase basis, whereby they are initially leased to CACSA-owned import-export company Aviaimport, with ownership being handed over once the full purchase price has been paid. According to ATR senior vice-president commercial Alain Brodin, the value of the sale is about $24 million.

Brodin says that the Cuban airlines desperately need to renovate their fleets, as tour operators are reluctant to offer their customers flights on ageing Soviet-built aircraft. Aerocaribbean operates a fleet of Ilyushin Il-18s and Antonov An-24s, while flag carrier Cubana hopes soon to modernise its turboprop fleet - which includes eight Fokker F27-600s, as well as 10 An-24s and 20 An-26s.

Plans to renew Cubana's larger fleet are hamstrung by a US trade embargo which prevents Airbus Industrie from selling its aircraft in Cuba because their US content exceeds 10%. CACSA confirms that early contacts have been established between Cuban authorities and Airbus in anticipation of a change in the political climate. Meanwhile, Cubana is operating three leased McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30s on flights to Europe.

Signs of a thaw in relations with the USA include the anticipated opening of an air corridor over US territory for flights to Canada, which now have to fly 370km (200nm) east of the US coastline, and the restart of humanitarian flights to Havana from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, expected to be operated by American Airlines and United Airlines later this month. These flights were halted by Washington two years ago, when Cuba shot down two US private aircraft for violating its airspace.

CACSA has opened a $55 million terminal at Havana, built with a combination of Canadian aid and private investment. According to CACSA director of investment and development Daniel Casal, the terminal can handle 3 million passengers a year, with further extensions planned which could extend that to as many as 10 million annually.

CACSA is also proposing to upgrade the national air traffic control system with more automation and improved communications between the country's Russian-equipped radar stations. Preliminary proposals for the ATC upgrade are being examined from consortia in Canada, France and Italy, says Casal.

Source: Flight International