Cubana Airlines —officially Cubana de Aviacion S.A.—is the national airline of the island nation and was founded in 1929. In 1932, the airline became a subsidiary of Pan Am, and the first Cubana flight to Miami occurred in 1945, making Cubana the first Latin American airline to fly to the United States. There were regularly scheduled flights to the United States until 1959.
As with all privately owned businesses in Cuba, it was appropriated by the state in 1959 after the Cuban Revolution. Because many of the appropriated businesses, including oil refineries and factories making cigars, had been American-owned, the United States placed a trade embargo on the newly Communist government. Cuba then turned to the Soviet Union for trade assistance, which resulted in just about every Cubana flight being operated on Soviet aircraft. Cubana was, in fact, the first airline in the Western Hemisphere to fly Soviet planes.
Cubana Airlines operates flights to many destinations within Cuba. The airline's main base is at Jose Marti Airport in Havana. From there, you can connect to cities all over the island, including the main tourist cities of Baracoa, Cayo Coco and Cayo Largo, Guantanamo, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba. Within the Americas, the airline has routes to the Bahamas, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Columbia, and Venezuela. These are the places that many Americans use to fly to the island due to the restrictions on legal travel to Cuba. There are flights to Cuba from American cities, but these are almost all charter flights for those with permission to visit and are generally flown on Caribbean airlines like Air Jamaica. Cubana also flies routes to Paris, Madrid, and London.
One thing you will notice on a Cubana flight is the phenomenon of the "smoking plane." As the aircraft hits 10,000 feet altitude, and the air-conditioning is switched on, thick "smoke" fills the cabin for several minutes. This is nothing to worry about, as it is only the effect of the change in humidity—the air begins to become visible in the same way it does with dry ice. There is no danger, but it can be quite a shock if you're not prepared for it.
In-flight service varies depending on your point of departure, with the flights from Canada offering the best food and beverage service - including free Cuba libres. Flights from Caribbean destinations are apart to offer only one free Cuba libre, and supplies of those can be limited. The flights, however, are of short duration, so it it's not a problem to wait until arrival to enjoy your fill of mojitos and other drinks made from the signature Cuban rum.
While the Soviet Union was a world power, Cubana Airlines enjoyed some of the best aircraft in the world. However, with the breakup of the Communist bloc in Europe, Russia was no longer in a position to provide new planes. This resulted in the airline's fleet becoming older, and today it is only able to buy used aircraft. This means the safety record is not the best. The airline appears at the top of many lists when counting number of accidents and incidents. Other airlines at the top of the list are China Airlines, Avianca Colombian Airline, TAM Airline (Brazil), Korean Air, Egypt Air, Indian Air Lines, China Southwest Airlines, and Aeromexico. Since 2005, however, Cubana has received its first new Ilyushin II-96-300 and Tupolev Tu-204 aircraft, with contracts to have more delivered, and the entire Soviet fleet completely replaced with new Russian aircraft in 2012.