By Circles Robinson
HAVANA TIMES — In the weeks before Christmas, I had to go twice to the main Havana airport to await family and friends. I also had my own experiences entering and leaving the island during the same month. Regrettably, even considering the tourism boom and the seasonal rush of visitors, the state of services to passengers and those waiting for them is highly deficient, almost comically so.
Arriving in Havana
Terminal 3, the main international wing of the Jose Marti Airport, was actually remodeled with a reported $10 million in repairs over a two-year period that concluded in 2015. However, instead of the expected improvements, services actually worsened.
As the visitor arrives they are guided to the immigration area. The wait can be from 20-40 minutes on the average, nothing out of the ordinary for many countries. A quick line then takes you to a nurse who asks a few questions and sends you on.
Then comes the bottleneck: the baggage retrieval area. Since all bags are passed through an agonizingly slow x-ray machine before reaching the conveyor belt, it can take from 30 minutes to 2 hours or more for the bags to even reach the conveyor belt. The bags seem to come out like drops off a leaky faucet.
There are only two carousels for unloading baggage, although sometimes as many as 5 or 6 full flights come in at virtually the same time. These two carousels jam easily and fixing the problem can take longer than you can imagine. This can be either frustrating or humorous depending on your point of view.
By the time the passenger gets their luggage, many realize there are no carts (since there are not nearly enough) and are left to drag their luggage to the customs officials. Those with one smaller piece of luggage are often allowed to go through without another inspection. However, the rest are subject to either a hand inspection or a weight inspection to determine the amount the passenger must pay to enter their belongings.
Finding yourself behind Cubans coming from the exterior with several bags can provide considerable delay. Watching the slow inspections of baggage can be mind boggling. During all this time, those waiting have no view, and – in many cases with no phone service – and have no idea whether the passenger they are waiting for has even arrived.
A friend of mine described her recent trip to the airport to meet someone coming in from Toronto. The flight got in on time, but after an hour and a half of waiting she assumed the person wasn’t on the plane and left. Meanwhile, the visitor finally got through customs some 2 ½ hours after landing, but then had no way to call. She ended up having to pay an unexpected 200 euros for a night in the Plaza Hotel. They connected the next day.
Welcome to Cuba
Once finally out of immigration and customs, the passenger encounters a sea of people waiting for family members, friends and tourists. Many of those waiting have been at the airport for 1-4 hours with nowhere to sit.
For those who have been waiting, there is also almost nowhere to purchase anything to eat or drink. No drinking water fountains are in sight. A very small selection of beverages is available, coffee, sodas, imported beer, if lucky ham and cheese sandwiches, potato chip or the likes, but the line can be 10-50 persons long with one or two apathetic, poorly-paid employees taking their own good time. There’s a small restaurant with a scant menu hidden on the third floor of the airport where you might find a piece of fried chicken, but it’s totally inconvenient for those waiting for passengers coming in on the ground floor.
Nearly two years ago, there was a project to build a series of spaces for state and private food vendors across from the airport entrance, however it never advanced beyond the building itself. A visitor might ask why the needed stands never opened, and a Cuban would just shrug.
Tourists not on organized tours need to exchange money as soon as they arrive in order to pay for a taxi to the city. As they come out of the airport, there are two change houses and often very long lines.
The net result of the airport experience is very negative, especially for tourists not accustomed to extreme patience. For them the excitement of having arrived in Cuba cushions the feeling a little, likewise for returning Cubans, friends or family members.
When it’s Time to Go
Leaving Cuba is smoother than coming in since, after a long line, baggage is checked in at the ticket counters.
After passing through immigration, the passenger has a last chance to shop at a few stands offering a very limited selection of products, although a good stock of books, T-shirts and photos of Che and Fidel, and some music CDs.
Even the one duty free shop is very limited. Also, you won’t find the traditional cardboard boxes for liquor, which means the passenger buys less, if at all. Almost none of the arts and crafts items sold in the city are available and no private vendors are allowed. The shelves, like supermarkets in the city, are stocked horizontally instead of vertically to keep them from appearing over half empty.
In between the gates, where there used to be three places selling a very limited list of food/drink items, now there is one. Lines of 30-50 or more people are common. Many don’t even bother.
For smokers there is a special enclosed room, which is fun to watch from the outside through the glass windows.
Inexplicably Lost Potential
There’s something very sad about all this. Cuba has many qualified people who, if given the chance, could design and manage this vital facility in such a way as to give a good initial and last image of the country to travelers, while offering a pleasant wait for family members and friends.
Likewise, with a decent variety of food and beverages they could make a lot more money for the state coffers, which according to President Raul Castro are not looking so good.
As if throwing up their hands in defeat, in August 2016, the Cuban government announced that the French corporations, Bouygues Batiment International and Aeropuertos de Paris will be taking over the management of the “Jose Marti” International Airport of Havana.
The agreement foresees “immediate actions to improve the quality of services” and “investment in the medium and long term,” according to a statement from the Cuban Ministry of Transport.
With more and more hotels being run and built by foreign corporations, and workers being brought in from other countries to substitute for Cubans, once again common sense is out the window on this supposedly socialist island.
And I’m sorry to say it, but this embarrassing and counter-productive situation has nothing to do with the never-ending US embargo and all the obstacles it causes.