The Blog


Flying Russia's friendly skies.

11:00 PM, Feb 23, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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About two weeks after the heroic water landing in the Hudson River by US Airways Captain Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III was being celebrated across the American airwaves, Russia's national airline, Aeroflot, had a story about one of its pilots make the news. This story was quite a bit different from the US Airways saga, and was a flashback to the Soviet era when we used to refer to the Russian airline as "Scareoflot."

Back in those days flying the airline was an almost nostalgic adventure. The Ilyushin and Tupolev airline interiors were tributes to the Spartan shabbiness of the Soviet concept of comfort and the unreliability of Soviet-designed passenger aircraft engines. The lavatories sometimes reeked of urine. The food could be inedible, unidentifiable, or both. But the flight crews--particularly on international routes--were fairly solid. The ability to get inside a duty free shop in Frankfort or Paris or Rome airports offered access to a cornucopia of goods almost unobtainable in Moscow and no member of a flight crew was eager to jeopardize that privilege.

Times have changed. On international routes Aeroflot now operates so many Boeing and Airbus models one could be forgiven for forgetting that the USSR used to manufacture large numbers of passenger aircraft. The trip for the average passenger is much more enjoyable than the Cold War days, but recent evidence suggests there has been a precipitous decline in the quality and professionalism of the flight crews.

On 28 December, Aeroflot flight 315 was preparing to depart Moscow's Shermyetevo-2 airport. The aircraft, a Boeing 767, was all fuelled and prepared for take-off when the pilot began to give the "welcome on board" announcement. As soon as they heard him speak the passengers immediately knew something was amiss. His voice was incomprehensible in his native Russian and even worse when he repeated the announcement in English.

The reaction of several of the passengers was one of shock and horror. "This guy is drunk," said one passenger on the Moscow-New York flight. "His speech was so slurred it was hard to tell what language he was speaking."

What then ensued was an hour of frenzied arguing (you almost have to have lived in Russia to imagine what this is like) in which passengers begged the flight crew, flight attendants, and Aeroflot ground personnel (who came on board to try and assure the passengers nothing was wrong) to have the pilot and the rest of the flight crew replaced.

Perhaps the only factor that averted the tragedy that would have resulted if the pilot had actually taken to the skies was that one of the passengers on the flight was the famous Russian socialite and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak, who led the passengers calling for the flight crew to be taken from the airplane. All the evidence to date is that had Sobchak not been on board the flight would have taken off as scheduled with the pilot, Aleksandr Cheplevsky, who had just celebrated his birthday the day before, at the controls. "They [the Aeroflot representatives] only starting listening to us after Sobchak began making phone calls" on her mobile, said one of the passengers who was later interviewed by the Moscow Times.

Passengers who indicated their concern about the pilot's condition received responses that surpass even the abysmal customer service that many Western airlines have become so famous for. Cabin crew and ground personnel initially told passengers to either "stop making trouble" or get off the plane. One passenger who rang Aeroflot's main customer service line from her mobile phone was told "it is impossible for a pilot to be drunk" and was then hung up on.

But the gold medal for Lies That Airlines Tell Passengers To Try And Brush Off Their Legitimate Complaints has to go to the Aeroflot representative who boarded the Boeing 767 during the argument between passengers and crew and announced to everyone that "it's not such a big deal if the pilot is drunk." According to passengers, he went on to say that "really, all [the pilot] has to do is press a button and the plane flies itself. . . . The worst that could happen is he'll trip over something in the cockpit."

After an hour of demands by those on board to see the pilot he exited from the cockpit and was described as being red-faced, bloodshot eyes, and unable to walk without weaving. "I don't think there's anyone in Russia who doesn't know what a drunk person looks like," said one of the passengers. Cheplevsky then told the passengers plaintively "I'll sit here quietly in a corner. We have three more pilots. I won't even touch the controls, I promise."