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Delta’s Charter Operation is used to supporting ad hoc flights to many unique and exotic locations, and Sunday’s historic return transport of the Minnesota Orchestra from Havana, Cuba, was no different.

Cuba is not a new destination for the airline, which has served the market as recently as late 2012, but this operation was a first-ever flight between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Cuba. Delta’s customer, the Minnesota Orchestra, was also making history as the first major orchestra from the U.S. to visit Havana following President Obama’s move to begin normalizing relations with Cuba.

The governments’ conversations served as the backdrop for several major U.S. orchestras scrambling to become the first to play in Havana in more than 15 years.

The Cuban Ministry of Culture ultimately extended an invitation to the Minnesota Orchestra to perform on consecutive nights at the International Cubadisco Festival. The trip was a homecoming of sorts for the Minnesota organization that had first played in Havana more than 85 years ago.

By accepting the invitation, the Minnesota Orchestra was on the clock to organize its entire trip in under four months. They quickly partnered with Classical Movements, an orchestra tour liaison, who brokered an agreement with Delta and managed the entire logistics of the trip.

“Delta was the first choice of Classical Movements, in part, for some great word of mouth we had received from our Seattle Symphony charter service,” said Mike Lowry, General Manager–Charter Operations. “But being awarded a charter was one thing; working through the logistics is the challenge.”

Minneapolis/St. Paul is not originally one of the 19 gateway cities allowed to directly serve Cuba, so Delta’s Government Affairs team engaged with local and federal agencies to grant direct access to Cuba. After several conversations about equipment and operational logistics, the aircraft grew from an initial Boeing 757 to an Airbus A330-300, which ultimately touched down in Havana on May 13.

“We had initial equipment ideas, but after speaking with the orchestra and understanding their needs, as well as getting the direct flight, we were able to get an aircraft that allowed them to carry some additional equipment that actually enhanced their concert performance,” said Lowry.

To crew the flights, Delta Charter Ops works with a hand-selected group of flight attendants who focus on handling a variety of unique missions – such as carrying the White House Press Corps.

In October 11, 2011, Delta began operating between 9 and 12 charter flights per week with daily service from Miami and weekly service from Atlanta and New York-JFK. It operated almost 500 trips before suspending service in December 29, 2012.

“Initially, we began charter service in 2011 as a way to get our foot in the door on future opportunities into Cuba,” said Lowry. “We ended them a year later as the public charter flights were only marginally profitable, and we learned what we needed to learn about operating in Cuba for possible future commercial service."

As conversations about U.S.-Cuba relations have heated up over the past several months, media speculation and interest on which U.S. airlines were interested in adding service, quickly became one of the most talked about storylines across the country.

Delta is very interested to begin flying scheduled service as soon as opportunities become available, and its successful charter of the Minnesota Orchestra hopes to provide additional opportunities for service to Cuba.

“Similar to entering a new market you have many issues with things such as security, ground transportation and accommodations,” Lowry said. “What we’ve gained from our time in Cuba over the past few years is the understanding of how to work with the local market and build relationships to be successful.”

Delta originally inherited passenger service to Havana, Cuba from its merger with Chicago and Southern Air Lines on May 1, 1953, offering nonstop flights from New Orleans. C&S had begun daily service to Havana on Nov. 1, 1946. Political instability and profitability issues ultimately lead Delta to suspended service on December 1, 1961.

 

Photo: Minnesota Orchestra