Crash of old Boeing 737 jet reflects a Cuban airline in crisis

Police and military personnel work among the wreckage of the Boeing-737 plane that crashed shortly after taking off from the Jose Marti airport in Havana, Cuba, on May 18, 2018.
Police and military personnel work among the wreckage of the Boeing-737 plane that crashed shortly after taking off from the Jose Marti airport in Havana, Cuba, on May 18, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MEXICO CITY (NYTIMES) - Almost 40 years old by the time it crashed last Friday (May 18) just outside of Havana, killing 110 people, the ageing 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 Mr 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 bedevilled the country for decades: economic mismanagement and the US 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 last 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.

"That's one of the oldest passenger jets I have heard of that is still in service," said Mr 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 to continue operating its state airline.

Mr Adel Yzquierdo Rodríguez, Cuba's 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.

Mr Yzquierdo said that 15 victims had been identified so far, including 10 adults and five children.