Catching a ride on the Ilyushin IL-96 is no easy feat. The largest operator of the type is the Russian government while Cubana is the sole commercial operator still flying the aircraft; Aeroflot parked its fleet of 5. With just three destinations served (Buenos Aires, Madrid and Paris) opportunities are limited. And so, faced with the need to get from Miami to Paris, I chose the much less direct and much more interesting route via Havana. And not only would I be flying on this rare aircraft but I chose to do it in style, paying the extra couple hundred dollars to experience Clase Tropical, Cubana’s business class offering.
In the weeks leading up to the trip Cubana seemed to take the IL-96 out of operations regularly, likely for maintenance. I had no desire to fly across the Atlantic on a wet-lease 767 but that seemed a distinct possibility. I was ecstatic to arrive at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana to the sight of the distinctive tail fin sticking up at the far end of the terminal. Secure in the knowledge that I was getting the joy ride I’d planned for I headed inside the terminal to begin the voyage.
Havana is relatively small for a major international gateway and most long-haul service is not daily. On this particular Saturday night the evening departure bank offered up five flights, two each to Paris and Madrid plus one to Moscow. This led to large lines snaking through the check-in area and the first real value of my Club Tropical ticket; like other airlines Cubana, does offer a dedicated lane for premium passengers at the check-in desks. Convincing the carrier that I was actually allowed to use that lane, however, was an entertaining exercise. After showing my ticket confirmation and passport to the reluctant agent I was given my boarding pass and then sent across the terminal to the ticketing window to receive my pass for lounge access. Presenting my boarding pass inside would not work and the agents at the check-in counter did not have the chit. Or they were just being ornery and having a bit of fun with the gringo. A less than spectacular passenger experience but still far better than waiting in the line.
Immigration and security were relatively smooth given the large number of travelers moving through the facility. Once inside I skipped the duty free shopping – rum is available at a massive markup to the rates in town – and made my way to the aforementioned lounge. I’m still not convinced that was the correct choice. It was crowded and dingy, though the smoking room in the back had plenty of seats available. Water, beer and liquor were available and I managed to store a decent amount of rum in my stomach to help with the upcoming flight. The meager selection of snacks offered slim pickings of questionable meats and fruits; it was a scary situation. Out in the terminal the options were not much better. Fortunately I had only about an hour to spend before the flight was called for boarding.
The first few minutes on board a new aircraft are always special. In this case it was even more for me because I quickly found myself at odds with the crew. Boarding was through the door at 2L and me seat was behind the boarding door. I was keen to explore the rest of the plane and immediately moved to go into the forward zone, at which point I hit a road block. The flight attendants were not having anything to do with my exploration; indeed, no one went into the forward space on the plane throughout the flight. I still have no idea what is in that part of the plane but I know that they are very serious about keeping passengers out.
Clase Tropical is two rows recliner seats of a 2-2-2 arrangement. On my flight only six of the 12 seats were taken by regular passengers. Four were occupied by off duty crew and two were taken by diplomatic couriers; suffice it to say that they got priority in the overhead bins for their bags, complete with padlocks and wax seals. Air vents are in the seat, not overhead. In the case of business class that means minimal air flow as the vent is too far away and angled wrong as soon as the other passenger reclines. But this was the least of the challenges the seats faced.
There is a personal IFE screen in the seat arm. Alas, it was stuck at a plain, blue screen throughout the flight. Somewhat surprisingly the power outlet at the seat did work correctly. When it came time to recline my seat and extend the leg rest I was stymied. I looked across the plane and noticed the couriers laughing at my struggles as they relaxed with their legs extended, resting on their carry-on bags. It seems that the broken leg rests are a feature, not a bug. Fortunately the pitch is sufficient that this arrangement works for what it is.
The economy class cabin is a relatively typical 3-3-3 layout with sufficient but not generous pitch. There are no overhead bins over the center section of seats, leaving it with an airy, spacious feel. And, fortunately, carry-on baggage was minimal meaning sufficient space for all the passengers. Around 10 rows from the back of the plane was a most bizarre quirk in the cabin: the floor angled slightly up towards the aft lavatories. This is the only aircraft I’ve ever been on where the floor was not level throughout the cabin. Much like the cordoned off area up front I have no idea why it is set that way.
Speaking of the lavatories, they are only available at the back of the plane; there are none in the Clase Tropical area. Premium passengers need not worry as one of the six lavs at the back is clearly labeled “Clase Tropical” though this proved less than useful as it also remained locked for the entire flight. Not that there was ever a line to use the lavs, but that was just one more thing to put on the list of quirks on this adventure.
Meal service was a mixed bag. My minimal Spanish and semi-passable French left me with only the simplest of choices for my dinner: “Fish, chicken or beef?” is where the flight attendant left off rather than trying to explain the options. I chose the fish and was pleasantly surprised at the quality. My seatmate had the chicken and it appeared dry but not awful. The meal was served with slices of tomato and cucumber as well as a charcuterie plate and a dessert. I skipped the meats and the veggies while enjoying the rest of the meal and a couple more drinks. Pre-flight sparkling wine and main course wine was served in glassware; other drinks – rum, vodka or juices – came in tiny plastic cups. With the entire rear of the plane occupied by the lavatories the meal service for economy class came from the galley in the business class section. Those passengers were offered similar choices for the meal though no liquor and just the main course from what I could see.
While dinner was passable the breakfast was decidedly not. It was presented as a meat sandwich of sorts plus yogurt and a fruit salad. I had a single bite of the sandwich and immediately regretted the decision. The fruit salad was slimy of a nature I’m not familiar with. Suffice it to say that my real breakfast was pain au chocolat in Orly after clearing immigration rather than dining on the plane.
Despite the in-seat screens the only entertainment offered in flight came on the overhead monitors. It was a loop of blurry shorts which appeared to be a video of a computer desktop playing a movie and being recorded for the IFE intermixed with flight progress details. At one point I noticed that the speed indicator had us flying 870 km/h which is about right for the eastbound transatlantic hop. When the system converted to imperial units it offered up 470 miles per hour for that same measurement rather than the more likely 540 mph number. Only mildly disconcerting, really.
So, how does a flight with no IFE, broken seats and only one mediocre meal score for the overall travel experience? Surprisingly high as a one-off trip. I was in it for the aircraft, not the rest of the bits, and in that sense it was spectacular. So many new eccentricities to uncover and explore. Were I flying it regularly I’m sure the rating would quickly diminish to “I’ll do it because it is way cheaper than the other options but that’s really the only reason.” A spectacular, unique travel experience but not one I’m in any hurry to repeat.
Some more photos from the flight:
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