By Armando Portela
During the busy Obama-Mick Jagger week at Havana’s José Martí International Airport in late March, U.S. travelers found Terminal 2 overwhelmed by traffic it was unprepared to handle. Passengers had to cope with endless lines, a crowded lounge, one single functioning luggage snake, foul restrooms, and other nuisances.
Built in 1988 to handle U.S.-Cuba air traffic and refurbished in 2009, Terminal 2 has a nominal capacity to process 600 passengers per hour. But this official estimate seems exaggerated — when the normal number of arrivals (some 1,000 passengers per day) was doubled or tripled for a few days, it choked the routine.
If the number of U.S. visitors to Havana booms as expected, Cuban authorities will have to find a solution to relieve the bottleneck at Terminal 2. With neither cash nor time for a major upgrading, the choices are either to divert part of the U.S. flights to Terminal 3 (reserved for non-U.S. origin international travelers) or to Terminal 1, which is only for domestic use.
But there is another recourse against the glut at José Martí airport, at least temporarily.
Despite its relatively small size and secondary functions, the Playa Baracoa executive airport is well-positioned to play a role in the rebirth of trade and commerce with the United States.
Located only three miles west of Havana city limits, Playa Baracoa (MUPB in the International Civil Aviation Organization code) is superbly positioned to serve as a support terminal to HAV. It is only 30 flight minutes from Key West International and 40 minutes from Miami International, a similar distance to Miami-Orlando.
As the top executive airport in Cuba, Playa Baracoa is tightly guarded and outfitted with modern navigation equipment, offers a good runway, several aprons, hangars, warehouses, and the headquarters of elite units of the Cuban Army. It takes a 25-minute drive to get to Havana’s business and diplomatic district of Miramar and about 15 minutes to get to the Mariel Special Development Zone.
This would not be the first time Playa Baracoa is considered as an alternative. In the late 1950s, studies were made to open Playa Baracoa to the growing U.S.-Cuba traffic. A planned expansion of the runway, construction of facilities and infrastructure, and even housing developments, was frozen in 1960 at the blueprint stage.
Playa Baracoa was beyond the reach for civil aviation until the late 1980s, when the military turned it into the base of AeroGaviota, the tourism airline created and managed by the armed forces. The airport also serves the transportation needs of Cuba’s top leaders. The facilities around the executive terminal at Aprons 1 and 3 are for the exclusive use of Raúl Castro, while the civil terminal at Apron 2 was and is still used by lower-rank officials, such as ministers or politburo members. Apron 4 is the deployment site for the aircrafts of the local garrison and special military operations.
MUPB features a 7,562 by 148 feet NNE-SSW concrete and asphalt runway capable to accommodate mid-range passenger aircrafts while serving military purposes. Only Apron 2 at the northern end of the runway is currently used for civil purposes, to shuttle tourists or workers on short domestic trips to Cayo Largo, Varadero, Trinidad (charter), Cayo Las Brujas (charter), Cayo Coco (charter), Holguín, Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa. As it falls within the navigational range of José Martí International traffic, it is assisted with modern aerial navigation equipment, including radars, distance measuring system, radio beacons, lighting approach, and maneuvering systems. It can operate small to medium aircrafts 24 hours a day.
There is no information about the capacity of Playa Baracoa executive, but based on the small size of the civil terminal and the current traffic, it can be safely assumed it handles a modest number of passengers.
Last but not least, Playa Baracoa is just 11 miles east of the port of Mariel, and it is located inside the Mariel Special Development Zone, which qualifies this airport for investment benefits.
Playa Baracoa is connected both to Havana and to Mariel by the four-lane Vía Azul (also named Panamericana) east-west highway, running along the shoreline.