Havana Airport History

What is the History of the Jose Martin International Airport?

Back in the 1920’s, Cuba had very little access to the outside world. Unless you could afford the time and money to travel to the island by boat or private light aircraft from the United States or other nearby country, then visiting Cuba was difficult. The only real working airfield in the country was the small Columbia Airfield which could serve only a few flights each day.

As the 1920’s progressed the country saw an upheaval within government, one of many during Cuba’s turbulent history, and a provisional government was established to oversee the country’s running. The provisional leader, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada, was installed as President and he set about trying to connect Cuba to the outside world by building a proper international airport. The location of the new airport would be on the same land as Columbia Airfield, but the airport would be far larger in size and scope. Construction of the airport began in early 1929 and it was officially opened in February 1930. Due to delays in getting runways ready, the first flight at the airport didn’t take off until late October 1930.

It’s All in a Name

The original name for the airport was Rancho Boyeros, meaning the “Bull Drover Ranch” in Spanish. This was in reference to the land the airport was built upon and was derived from the fact that in colonial times it was home to a local family who built a ranch where the airport now stands. The family used the ranch as a type of inn and served local travellers, who were bringing essential agricultural products to the capital, with drinks and meals to satiate their needs.

Over time, the old ranch homes disappeared and the area around the airport became a small town. This town would go on to serve Havana as an industrial, livestock, agriculture and commercial centre, and would later become known as the Boyeros Municipality of Havana. The change from “Ranch” to bustling town led to a change in the airports name shortly after the Cuban revolution, with the more meaningful Jose Marti Airport chosen in reverence of the noted revolutionary philosopher and political theorist.

Political Turbulence

Over the years, Cuba has seen many, many changes in the political landscape but none so significant as in the last hundred years. After the Cuban Revolution in the early 1950s, a socialist government under the leadership of Fidel Castro took over the country and as a result diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States deteriorated substantially. During the early 1960s the United States enforced a strict embargo against Cuba, severely impacting the airports international operations. The embargo prevented airlines based in the United States from operating regular scheduled flights to the airport.

The tensions between the new Cuban government and the United States peaked in 1961 with the failed CIA backed Bay of Pigs invasion and the threat of nuclear war that ensued. Notably during the attempted invasion, the airport suffered severe damage at the hands of U.S. Douglas A-26 Invader aircraft who heavily bombed it.

With tensions between Cuba and the United States running at fever pitch, the Cuban government began cultivating stronger relationships with the Soviet Union. This led to the airport enjoying lucrative contracts with many Eastern Bloc airlines, such as Aeroflot, Inteflug, Czechoslovak Airlines, and LOT Polish Airlines during the 1970s and 80s.

By the late 80s tensions with the U.S. had subsided enough for charter flights to Cuba to be permitted again. Due to anticipation for increased demand at the airport, it was decided in 1988 to construct Terminal 2 to accommodate extra passengers.

By the early 1990s special charter flights were running between Miami to Cuba allowing Cuban citizens who lived in the United States to travel back to the island if they still had close relatives there. Over the years the rules relaxed further and today, a long list of airlines operate non-stop services between Havana and Miami. There are even several services each day between New York and Cuba. This is on top of the many European flights that land at the airport due to Cuba’s increasing popularity as a holiday destination.

One of the proudest achievements in the airport’s history happened on December 31, 1997 when an Air France Concorde jet landed in Cuba for the first time. The London – Paris – Barbados – Havana flight was received by Fidel Castro himself who boarded the craft and greeted passengers and crew.

How Has the Airport Changed Over the Years?

Over the years the airport has been added to, changed, and improved. In January 1943 a control tower was put into operation at the site allowing international flights to Cuba easier access. The first international commercial plane took off from the airport in May 1945 but in the early years international flights were rare and it wasn’t until the 1950s that regular services ran from the airport.

For most of the airports history it ran with just the one terminal, severely limiting the number of flights that could land and take off from its runways. This changed in 1988 when Terminal 2 was constructed to allow more flights to run and to attract lucrative United States charter flights.

In 1998 a third terminal was added, called International Terminal 3. This was built to be the airport’s main international terminal and was inaugurated by Canada’s Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Cuba’s President Fidel Castro. Due to it being the most recently built terminal, it is the largest and most modern and includes not only ticketing, departures, arrivals, and baggage areas but also shops, restaurants and several car rental services.

How Safe is it to Fly From Cuba’s Jose Marti International Airport?

As with most international airports, accidents do from time to time happen and because of the nature of air flight, when they do, they can be incredibly serious. The Jose Marti International Airport is no different, and whilst the airport has a better than normal accident record compared to other airports, there have still been the odd accident in its history.

On 27 May 1977 a passenger service operating between Moscow – Frankfurt – Lisbon and Havana crashed at the airport killing 68 people. The accident was one of the deadliest in the country’s history and became known as the Aeroflot Ilyushin 62 crash.

On the 3rd of September 1989 an international flight to Germany crashed just after take off killing all 115 passengers, 11 crew members, as well as 45 persons on the ground.

Whilst accidents like these tend to hog the headlines, they are incredibly rare and cannot detract from the excellent safety record Jose Marti International Airport’s enjoys.