Cuba Replaces Soviet-Era Passenger Aircraft

March 29, 2006

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Cuba plans to buy five more Russian passenger jets after receiving two long-haul Ilyushin Il-96s to replace aging Soviet-era aircraft, a Russian diplomat said on Tuesday.

The new order by flag carrier Cubana de Aviacion is for another two wide-bodied Il-96-300s and three medium-range Tupolev Tu-204s, one of them fitted for air freight, the diplomat said.

The new sales contracts will be finalized in April and financed by Russia's Ilyushin Finans Co., he said.

Three weeks ago, Cuba received a second Il-96-300 furnished with a VIP cabin for use by President Fidel Castro that can be reconfigured for commercial flights, he said.

"It is not only for travel by the Comandante," he said, referring to Castro.

The plane is also being used to carry Cuban doctors working in countries as far afield as Pakistan and to bring patients to Cuba for free treatment and surgery, the ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma said.

The first 260-passenger IL-96 arrived in December and has been in use on commercial flights to South American cities.

The brand-new planes are equipped with the latest navigation technology, the newspaper said.

For trips abroad, Castro has been flying an IL-62 built 30 years ago. Civil aviation authorities in the European Union and other countries no longer allow the plane to land because it does not meet safety standards.

Cuban officials had to scramble to get special permission to land Castro's plane in Japan during a trip to Asia in 2003, an Asian diplomat said.

Cuba is the first foreign customer for the IL-96-300 made at the Voronezh aircraft factory. The plane is flown mainly by Russia's flagship airline Aeroflot.

Russia grounded the IL-96-300 in August last year for safety checks on its braking system after problems with one of the planes disrupted a flight by President Vladimir Putin. The plane was cleared for flying six weeks later.