Among the many hurdles U.S. commercial airlines must navigate to serve Cuba, their planes must fly with maintenance technicians certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on board. The airlines can’t use Cuban technicians, because Cuba doesn’t have any with the proper certifications.
“Currently, Cuba does not have any FAA-certified maintenance technicians,” wrote Southwest Airlines spokesperson Casey Dunn. “It is common practice for U.S.-based airlines to have an FAA-certified aircraft maintenance technician on board most flights to Cuba. This gives the airline the ability to quickly address any mechanical issues should they occur while in Cuba.”
The island’s lack of FAA-certified mechanics appears to be unique for the Americas. Dunn says among all the destinations where Southwest flies in the Caribbean and South America, Cuba is the only country without them.
Airlines were reassured they could fly with technicians on board without violating the U.S. embargo, thanks to an October 2016 Obama administration decision. At the time, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control wrote it would allow “persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to provide civil aviation safety-related services to Cuba and Cuban nationals aimed at promoting safety in civil aviation and the safe operation of commercial aircraft.”
U.S. commercial airlines will likely be keeping technicians on their flights for a while; the FAA doesn’t appear to be interested in certifying a repair station in Cuba. The only other way around that is for both countries to sign a bilateral aviation safety accord, said Christian Klein, an attorney with law firm Obadal Filler MacLeod & Klein, and executive vice-president of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association.
Even though onboard technicians make flights safer, the practice has a few downsides. Technicians take seats away from potential customers, they get paid even when not working—and some tasks require transporting two maintenance workers. “The aviation maintenance industry is hurting for workers, so it presents its own challenges,” Klein said.
Despite Cuba’s strategic location in the Caribbean, there also doesn’t appear to be any push from the U.S. maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) industry to provide services there for now. One reason? Most U.S. MRO service providers don’t work on Russian planes, notes Jim Sokol, president of MRO service provider HAECO Americas—and Cuba’s state-owned Cubana de Aviación operates an all-Russian fleet.
“As things start to open up,” Sokol said, “we want to be a part of solutions.” For now, that means keeping U.S. airlines safe and sound.