U.S. bans officials from flights within Cuba
BY CAROL ROSENBERG
Worried about the safety of Havana's state-run Cubana airlines,
Department is forbidding U.S. diplomats and other government officials from
traveling around the island on internal commuter flights.
The news comes as charter air services from the United States
are gearing up for
one of the heaviest Christmas travel seasons ever between Miami and the island.
The charters do not use Cuban aircraft. But, once there, any visitor seeking an
internal flight would have to take a now-banned Cubana de Aviación aircraft.
An advisory by the State Department dated Dec. 1 revealed the
ban and suggests
that ``Americans who are required to travel by air within Cuba may wish to defer
their travel or consider alternate means of transportation.''
Called a Consular Information Sheet, the Cuba advisory updated
an earlier Sept.
14, 1999, State Department information sheet that routinely describes country
conditions for U.S. travelers.
A U.S. diplomat, who asked not to be named, said the State Department
the advisory because once the agency banned U.S. officials from taking Cubana
flights federal law requires that the public be notified as well.
``We believe that Cubana de Aviación is unsafe, and that's
new,'' the official said,
citing concerns about maintenance, spare parts and the state of the airline's
planes, some of which are vintage Soviet-era Ilyushin aircraft.
Cubana aircraft have experienced several serious accidents in
the past 18
months. On Dec. 21, 1999, a Cubana-leased DC-10 crashed on a runway in
Guatemala City, killing 25 people. Four days later, a Russian-built Yak-42
Cubana plane crashed about 90 miles west of Caracas, in Valencia, killing all 22
people on board.
Also, in September, a Cubana pilot died of a heart attack while
flight between Bogotá, Colombia, and Havana.
His copilot took charge of the flight, with 155 people on board,
landed it in Barranquilla in northern Colombia.
U.S. officials are partially stymied in their ability to assess
airworthiness because the U.S. embargo on Cuba prohibits Cubana aircraft from
entering the United States, meaning the Federal Aviation Administration has no
access to the airline's records or data to independently track maintenance
Ironically, the same advisory issued by the State Department said
that the FAA
recently completed an information exchange with Cuba's Civil Aviation Authority
and found that the four Cuban airports served by U.S.-based charters have
suitable security procedures that meet the standards of the International Civil
Aviation Organization. The four airports are José Martí International in Havana, and
smaller airports in Holguín, Camagüey, and Santiago de Cuba.
Cubana began in October 1929 as Compania Nacional Cubana de Aviación
Curtiss. By 1945, its name was shortened to Compania Cubana de Aviación, with
its first international flights using DC-3 aircraft to Miami.
After the 1959 revolution, the now state-run business sold its
aircraft and replaced them with Ilyushin, Tupolev, Antonov and Yakovlev, or Yak,