‘Wet leased’ Boeing jet in worst Cuba plane crash since 1989 had safety complaints

The aircraft was ‘wet leased’ to Cuba’s state airline by a Mexican company that also supplied crew, flight attendants, a maintenance technician, as well as the insurance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 12:09pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 10:29pm

The Mexican charter company whose plane crashed in Havana, killing 110 people, has been the subject of two serious complaints about its crews’ performance over the last decade, according to authorities in Guyana and a retired pilot for Cuba’s national airline.

The plane was barred from Guyanese airspace last year after authorities discovered that its crew had been allowing dangerous overloading of luggage on flights to Cuba, Guyanese Civil Aviation Director Captain Egbert Field said.

The plane and crew were being rented from Mexico City-based Damojh airlines by EasySky, a Honduras-based low-cost airline.

Cuba’s national carrier, Cubana de Aviacion, was also renting the Boeing 737 and crew in a similar arrangement known as a “wet lease” before the aircraft veered on takeoff to the eastern Cuban city of Holguin and crashed into a field just after noon Friday, according to Mexican aviation authorities.

A Damojh employee in Mexico City declined to comment, saying the company would be communicating only through written statements.

Mexican authorities said Damojh had permits needed to lease its aircraft and had passed a November 2017 verification of its maintenance programme.

Mexico’s government released a statement saying its National Civil Aviation Authority would carry out a new “operational audit” of Damojh to see if its “current operating conditions continue meeting regulations, as well as collecting information to help the investigation”.

Cuban Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez said that Cubana had been renting the plane for less than a month under an arrangement in which the Mexican company was entirely responsible for maintenance of the aircraft.

Armando Daniel Lopez, president of Cuba’s Institute of Civil Aviation, said that Cuban authorities had not received any complaints about the plane in that month. He declined to comment further.

Yzquierdo said it was routine for Cuba to rent planes under a variety of arrangements because of what he described as the country’s inability to purchase its own aircraft due to the US trade embargo on the island.

Cuba has been able to buy planes produced in other countries, including France and Ukraine, but has pulled many from service due to maintenance problems and other issues.

“It’s normal for us to rent planes,” he said.

“Why? Because it’s convenient and because of the problem of the blockade that we have. Sometimes we can’t buy the planes that we need, and we need to rent them.”

He said that with Damojh, “the formula here is that they take care of the maintenance of the aircraft. That’s their responsibility.”

He said Cuba didn’t have pilots certified to fly the Boeing, so it had hired the Mexican crew with the expectation that they were fully trained and certified by the proper authorities.

Yzquierdo also said the jet’s “black box” voice recorder had been recovered and that Cuban officials had granted a US request for investigators from Boeing to travel to the island.

Eyewitness and private salon owner Rocio Martinez said she heard a strange noise and looked up to see the plane with a turbine on fire.

“It had an engine on fire, in flames, it was falling toward the ground,” Martinez said, adding that the plane veered into the field where it crashed, avoiding potential fatalities in a nearby residential area.

Field said that the Boeing 737 with tail number XA-UHZ had been flying four routes a week between Georgetown, Guyana, and Havana starting in October 2016.

The crash was the worst in Cuba since a Soviet-made Ilyushin-62M passenger plane crashed near Havana in 1989 killing all 126 people on board and another 14 on the ground.

Cuba plane crash: what we know

Among the 110 people killed were 99 Cubans, the six-person Mexican crew and five foreign passengers – an Argentine couple, a Mexican woman and two people from Western Sahara, according to Cuba’s Transport Minister Adel Yzquierdo. There were five children among the dead.

Three Cuban women survived the crash and are hospitalised in critical condition, according to state media.

The aircraft was a Boeing 737-200 leased to Cuba’s state airline Cubana de Aviacion by Mexican company Global Air, also known as Aerolineas Damojh. It was a “wet lease,” meaning Global Air supplied the plane, its crew of two pilots, three flight attendants and a maintenance technician, as well as the insurance.

Built in 1979, according to the Mexican government, the plane last passed inspection in November 2017.

The accident happened at 12:08pm. The plane crashed in a potato field close to Havana’s airport. Witnesses and airport officials said that the aircraft, which had been headed toward the eastern Cuban city of Holguin 670 kilometres (420 miles) away, plunged as it was making its first turn after take-off.

National mourning in Cuba was being observed Saturday and Sunday.

After the accident, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel – who only took power last month – ordered an investigation be started. Mexican civil aviation authorities sent a team of experts to help Cuban officials, and Boeing has a technical team on its way to the island.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse