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HAVANA - In a late-night meeting on the eve of Delta’s service restart to Havana, Station Manager Demetra Bethavas addresses her team of Airport Customer Service agents, IT and security experts, and others for a final time before three mainline flights touch down in the Cuban capital Thursday.

It’s zero hour for the crack team of Delta people, many on loan from stations in Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama City, San Salvador and the airline’s headquarters in Atlanta to help launch service to Cuba. Bethavas goes over the agenda for Thursday’s inaugural flights, making sure every team member knows their role and the backup plan should an unexpected snafu disrupt the operation—a reality of operating in a country that has been largely disconnected from the United States for more than 50 years.

Cuba team on eve of launch
When Delta earlier this year was awarded routes from the U.S. to Havana, ending a 55-year hiatus on scheduled air service between the two countries, Delta called on Bethavas, a 26-year Delta veteran who has helped orchestrate station openings in Colombia, the Caribbean and elsewhere in Latin America.

Despite her decades of experience, opening three routes to Havana on the same day has been a challenge all its own. It’s meant months of dealing with governmental red tape and import/export restrictions on both sides of the 90-mile Florida Strait, adapting to dated technology and adjusting processes to align with the Cuban ways of doing business.

Navigating those challenges, Delta’s Cuba team emphasizes, starts with building relationships locally. Bethavas recounted her first few weeks on the island, when she took time out of her busy day to get to know key players at the airport and aviation authority as well as reliable taxi drivers. Early on, Delta held meetings with the Cuban authorities to familiarize them with Delta and the way the airline does business, emphasizing deep relationships with Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic and Aeromexico—airlines that have operated to Havana for years and with whom Delta could share resources in a resource-strapped country.

“Without those personal relationships, we wouldn’t have gotten very far and wouldn’t have the successful startup that we’ll have on Thursday,” she said. “The will of the Cuban people to get stuff done is amazing; the word ‘no’ isn’t in their vocabulary.”

Those kinds of relationships played a critical role when just weeks before launch, a critical piece of operational equipment needed to install IT infrastructure wasn’t available at the airport. Bethavas recounts identifying a backup system stored at an airport employee’s house outside the city. An after-hours phone call to the employee and the dispatch of one of Bethavas’ trusted cab drivers had the component safely at the airport just in time.

Cuba team celebrates launch
“This is a place you really have to think outside of the box almost hourly,” said Ivan Dowlin, Delta’s station manager in Panama City, who’s been Bethavas’ right hand during the process. “We’re quite accustomed to getting things done in a particular way in our countries, but here, you have to approach every challenge differently and find a way of doing things differently.”

Other complexities, like sourcing fuel for Delta aircraft, importing computer and ground support equipment, balancing limited internet bandwidth needed to run ticketing and boarding systems all the way down to having printer paper and ticket stock in hand were things Bethavas and her team had to artfully coordinate.

“Coming here really brings you back in time,” said Demetrio Acevedo, Delta’s Field Director who oversees Mexico and Cuba. “The challenge is operating with the same level of reliability and consistency that our customers expect in a country that lacks many of the technology improvements and processes that have become the norm in the rest of the world.”

But facing those challenges and solving them, the Delta team says, will have a lasting effect on how airlines operate to the country. For Field Director Acevedo, inaugurating service to the island is one element in helping to shape the future of Cuban aviation.

“There are a lot of best practices, technology and processes we can bring to improve Cuban aviation to help them align with the rest of the world,” he said. Doing that, Acevedo says, means bringing a level of connectivity to one of Cuba’s closest neighbors the country hasn’t had in more than half a century.  

Back at the meeting in a sitting area on the sixth floor of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba—the Delta team’s makeshift war room—the mood is one of excitement and anticipation as the group reflects on the last several months. It’s almost easy to forget the gravity of what this team will accomplish as Bethavas and others make customary speeches about the hard work of the team, staying safe and keeping Delta customers at the forefront. Soon Delta’s Cuba team will have orchestrated something many thought might never happen.

“We’re part of something historic,” she said. “While this has been one of the more challenging projects I’ve ever been a part of, I’m thrilled to have Delta jets flying to Cuba again and to connect the U.S. to the people of this great country after so many years.”