A crowd waits for arriving passengers to clear through customs at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. Delta launched its first scheduled airline flights to Cuba on Dec. 1, a key milestone in the U.S. opening to Cuba. The Dec. 1 launch of the Atlanta-Havana route opens local travel to Cuba. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Delta makes historic but subdued arrival in Cuba

HAVANA, CUBA — The baggage handling was slow, the welcoming celebration was subdued and the typically-festive streets of Havana were quiet — but for Delta Air Lines, just pulling off a smooth launch of its first scheduled flights to Cuba in 55 years was a feat.

It was never going to be easy to start service to Cuba, a place where few American companies can operate and where regular airline flights have been blocked for decades.

Then, the death of Fidel Castro led to a nine-day period of national mourning and brought Delta’s first customers to a city with closed bars, no music and a muted atmosphere on city streets.

Many of the officials who had planned to take Delta’s first flight from Atlanta to Havana on Thursday learned that the events and meetings that had been planned were canceled due to the mourning period and pulled out of the trip, leaving about half of the seats empty on the inaugural flight.

Yet the flight’s historic touchdown in Havana culminated of months of exhaustive preparation.

Delta is one of eight U.S. airlines launching service to Havana, bringing a huge influx of traffic in a short period of time to an airport addled with an array of unusual limitations.

While people in Cuba have been “great to work with, we are full of challenges,” said Demetrio Acevedo, a Delta field director in customer service who helped oversee the launch of service in Cuba.

Everything from computers, printers and even printer paper is difficult to get in Cuba, and typically can’t be imported from the United States. He said some supplies like printer paper are being brought in from Panama.

“The way I like to summarize it is: Here, you have to bring your own mouse to use a computer,” Acevedo said. “Everywhere you look around, you see equipment that’s fifty to sixty years old.”

Airport equipment like tugs for moving baggage are older and less efficient, according to Delta – leading to a hectic baggage claim area with some waits of up to two hours.

» SPECIAL PRESENTATION: The AJC in Cuba -- Atlanta to Havana

While Delta has in recent years operated some charter flights to Cuba, planning for scheduled service started more than a year ago, and the airline’s work on the logistics of starting service has been in full swing for six months.

Staff at the airport and at Delta’s new city ticket office in Havana are workers for a state-owned enterprise. In recent weeks, Delta employees flown in from other parts of the world have trained workers to handle Delta customers and flights.

Delta also flew in about 20 of its own employees from a departments including IT, customer service, maintenance and other areas to help with its launch day at Havana’s airport.

That’s crucial for incidents such as when the airport’s Internet goes down, a scenario that requires employees to either use a more rudimentary computer system to process passengers or to revert to manual boarding passes.

Among the challenges, Delta’s Havana ticket office closed for a period during the time of mourning.

“We’ve been very careful with our plans,” Acevedo said. “We have to be respectful.”

Travelers who flew to Havana during the period of mourning say they are going with the flow.

Joe Raguckas, of Tampa, said he wanted to experience some of the local music, “but it’s been really quiet … A lot of places were closed.”

Raguckas said he visited a Cuban school where the principal “was on the verge of tears . . She was telling stories of how Fidel really helped the schools. She was very emotional.”

Jim MacDonald, a Canadian from Cape Breton who has traveled to Cuba 20 times, said he has found that his friends in Cuba “feel very sad. Castro was a great man to them.”

Normally, while walking through Havana, MacDonald said, “there’s a soundtrack to the whole thing. Everywhere you go there’s music,” MacDonald said. “There’s no music now.”

Yet on the streets of the city, “people just seem to be going about their business,” said traveler Nancy Wilson from Minnesota.

The period of mourning is apparent in visits to some Havana attractions. During a visit to the famed Buena Vista Social Club, “we were hoping for music and dancing, and it was nothing,” Wilson said.

But Julie Bliven, traveling with Wilson, said being in Havana now, “It’s a piece of history.”

And, Wilson said, “We were told if we wanted to go to Cuba, we should go before January 20, because of changes that might happen.”

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