Imagine the appeal of a hospital with bodies piled up at the entrance, or perhaps a restaurant with victims of its food poisoning on the streets outside enticing you in. These were the welcoming images that I conjured up every time I had the privilege of flying Aeroflot internally in the Nineties.
It seemed that every regional airport had its allocation of carcasses, wrecked Tupolevs through a combination of icy conditions, poor maintenance and inebriated pilots. I had been warned about the dangers of flying Aeorflot within Russia, as whatever service resources that did exist seemed to be earmarked for the international routes. The Soviet airline was a byword for danger, and the experiences on the ground (and in the air) more than justified that tag.
I am still alive, despite the thirty or so internal flights I took in former Soviet Union with Aeroflot. I have had my fair share of air drama elsewhere (if I can figure out how to do links on this blog, I can point you to the Boeing 727 crash in Eritrea in 2001, and John Travolta's discarded private jet developing engine trouble over the skies of Somalia a year later), but it was the Aeroflot experience that stays with me for the warmest memories. I thought I would share a few of my favourite moments with you.
As with most things in life, there was an alternative to Aeroflot - the train. I am a big fan of Russian train travel, an adventure at every stop (and there are MANY stops), but the scheduled train from Moscow to Vladivostok takes nine days versus nine hours on Aeorflot. The stories of local party officials informing Moscow that the airport was closed to ward off any Party visits are probably true and an excellent deterrent, since the nine day alternative would only appeal to the most committed Comrade.
I should qualify Aeroflot time. Nine hours' flying time is nine hours as we know it, but the foreplay to the takeoff could take... days. A friend, a native of Vladivostok, recounted the tale of his flight to Moscow, in which the passengers finally boarded the plane after the usual unexplained delay. Boarding the plane was seen as a good sign, but not a precursor to take-off itself.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," began a soft female voice over the speaker system, "the pilot wishes to inform you that he is ready to take off, but there could be delays of several days due to the weather. He is prepared to fly now, but an additional contribution of 80,000 roubles will be required. The stewardesses will be coming round with some collection buckets." I forget the exchange rate at the time, but the bribe was several hundred dollars. The alternative, a long wait or the dreaded train, was not to be contemplated. The buckets were filled.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your contributions. We have almost got all the money required. The stewardesses will pass once more and we hope that we can resolve the situation." One more cabin sweep and the aircraft was airborne soon after.
I became fascinated by the stewardesses. The capitalist concepts of customer service and customer satisfaction had not reached the company, and trying to figure out what value these trolley dollies added to the flight occupied a lot of my time. As passengers boarded the plane, they would officiously check each ticket and point to the seat, considerably slowing down the process, before finally giving up and screaming Luboye myesto - any place - in an effort to get the plane to depart a little less late. Had they not been there at all, there would have been no problems.
One of the interesting parts of flying with different airlines was sampling the in-flight service and food. Not so with Aeroflot Internal. The only time I ever had a meal on board was my last flight from Yekaterinburg to Moscow. I was astonished to find an in-flight movie for the first time, but even more astonished by the movie chosen - Airport 77, a gripping tale of an epic plane crash. The food was fine, but the presentation stood out from Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and all the other perceived market leaders on service; a plastic tray containing a hunk of beef, a slab or bread and half a cucumber. No cutlery, no drink, no serviette. It was delicious.
The duty-free trolley was always a delight and the one part of the job that the ladies took seriously. For this was where they made their money on the side. Dolls from China, imitation perfume, hardly anything of use, and ALWAYS a finger dial landline telephone (often purple). I would love to meet the marketing guru who could come up with a campaign to turn this into a spontaneous purchase.
Aeroflot Time was really out there on its own, however. Having conducted a survey for a pilot kerosene stove project in Armenia and discovered that a third of beneficiaries had either starved or frozen to death, I engineered a trip to Siberia to the largest stove-producing factory to negotiate a bulk purchase, handily close to the shores of Lake Baikal. I spent a wonderful weekend at the lake, confident I would be back in the office by Monday morning.
There was something novel at the airport in Irkutsk - a screen with information. The initial joy gave way to more than a little depression. I had turned up with my ticket, expecting to fly the same day, the 28th.
"Passengers with tickets to Yekaterinburg for the 23rd should check in at 16.00. For any later flights, there is no news." With a train connection three days or more, I was in some trouble. I scoured the vast wall map of the Soviet Union, trying to pinpoint a town close to Yekaterinburg. Chelyabinsk seemed close and I was amazed to find a flight with availability that afternoon. I hopped on and managed to negotiate a taxi (a blog post in its own right) for $50 to take me the 250 km north. I would not be surprised if some of my fellow passengers manifested on the original flight are still there.
The safety issue can be summed up in two passenger announcements I personally witnessed, as well as a reassuring emergency instruction on a flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi.
"Would the owner of the gas canister at the back please come forward, as it is leaking."
"Does anyone have a spanner?"
And my favourite, the emergency box above the seat in front as we flew to Georgia; The Soviet Union was gone by then, so the carrier must have been one of the deregulated off-shoots, I forget which, but the instructions were unforgettable (in English and Russian):
"In case of emergency, break the glass to release the emergency rope."
Russian drinking exploits are famous the world over and, having experienced them first hand all too often, I can state that they are, if anything, understated. I was going through a self-inflicted dry spell as I took my seat on the flight back to Moscow next to two very jolly young men. I am weak and I soon caved in to their demands to share the bottles they had with them.
Making conversation, I asked them where they were headed. Over the three bottles we drank on the flight (and they had started a long time before me), they told me about the imminent wedding for one of them, how he was off to Kiev via Moscow for a final fling. The other inebriate was escorting him as far as Moscow before catching the turnaround flight as he had to start work in nine hours. I asked him what he did.
"I am a pilot. I will be flying this plane to Tashkent. Cheers!"
One of the more surreal moments of my time in the Urals - trying to explain that American cows did in fact produce milk.
Hitchhiking to the Soviet Union from Manchester and then finding one's host's address in the Moscow suburbs couldn't be that hard, could it?
Borat the Movie put Kazakhstan on the map, but there is plenty more to discover about this oil-rich Central Asian country, which recently moved its capital.