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Airline Mismanagement

Aeroflot probably has one of the very worst reputations of any airline in the world.

But - and whether it is Aeroflot improving, or the other airlines deteriorating - these days its international coach class service is comparable to most other airlines.

Aeroflot no longer deserves its bad reputation.

 
 
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Aeroflot Business Class


The old and the not so old. An Il-18B dating back to the 1960s in the top image; a current Il-96 in the bottom image.

However, all Aeroflot flights between the US and Russia are on modern Boeing 767 and 777 (or sometimes Airbus) planes.

 

 

Aeroflot today is a profitable international airline, operating a fleet of modern Boeing and Airbus planes to a range of destinations in the US, Europe, and elsewhere.

Contrary to popular belief, they have an excellent safety record, and if your travels take you somewhere Aeroflot flies, they are also most likely your lowest cost option.

 

Welcome (?) to Aeroflot

Although the winged hammer and sickle logo has been preserved as a dubious reminder of its Soviet past, today's Aeroflot is struggling - with varying degrees of success - to reinvent itself along western lines.

Replacing old Russian planes with modern western planes was easy. Replacing old staff attitudes with new customer-friendly ones is not so easy. Whereas too many staff at US airlines now seem to greet their customers with open hostility, the Aeroflot staff simply greet customers with complete neutral apathy - or perhaps, they just ignore them completely!

I was checking in at Seattle for a flight last year, and there were three Aeroflot agents working the counters. One was taking customers, one was reading a magazine, and the third was ignoring everyone. The line of waiting customers continued to grow, with only one of the three staff members struggling to serve the passengers. And on a recent Aeroflot flight, the flight attendants scolded passengers for not closing overhead bins and refused to help passengers to put their carry-on items into the bins.

Aeroflot also has a very lackadaisical approach to on time performance. What I find particularly inexcusable is being told that a flight is expect to arrive in Seattle shortly when it hasn't even taken off from San Francisco, two hours flying time away! Most flights have at least a one hour delay, with 2 - 4 hour delays being sadly more common than on-time departures and arrivals.

The staff in the local Aeroflot office always urge passengers to phone them on the day of the flight to try and get an updated understanding of when the flight might actually depart.

Pre-flight

Checking in for a flight from Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport is a nightmarish undertaking in an ugly and inadequate building. Interminably long lines for everything are made worse by aggressive queue jumping. In the US we typically have two lines - one to check in and one for security. At Moscow, you have five - customs, baggage x-ray, checkin counters, immigration, and lastly security - and it can easily take a full two hours or more to slowly make your way through all of these.

Some of the disorder and chaos infects the Seattle checkin procedures, too, with no clear separate lines for business and coach class checkin, and people suddenly appearing in line in front of you and daring you to complain about it, and/or offering elaborate justifications why they should cut in front. Of course, if you do complain, they suddenly become 'very Russian' and pretend not to understand what you're saying.

Although in theory business class buys you a shorter checkin line, this doesn't always work reliably, and on my flight in August 03, there was no separate checkin line or counter for business class in Seattle. On the return flight from Moscow, there was a priority line for First Class, but no priority line for Business Class.

There is no priority baggage service offered to business class passengers.

In Seattle (and in Los Angeles) there is also no lounge. I've been told that Aeroflot tried to negotiate a deal with BA to rent their lounge, but refused to pay the fee that BA asked. This was rumored to be $50 per person - certainly not inexpensive, but in the context of Aeroflot earning an extra $1000 and up per business or first class passenger, surely it is something that Aeroflot can afford to pay. (BA is not the only airline with a nearby lounge, either.) Not offering a lounge is a serious omission by today's international business class travel standards.

There was no priority boarding offered for business or first class passengers, but it was a lightly loaded flight and perhaps they didn't feel the need for this. So the pre-flight experiences were all indistinguishable for a business class passenger as for a coach class passenger.

Seat and Amenities

On board the 777, there was a small first class cabin, with not very special looking seats in a 2 - 2 - 2 configuration with lots of legroom. The business class cabin was next, with seats in a 2 - 3 - 2 configuration, and the coach class cabin was behind that with its 2 - 5 - 2 seating.

The business class seat was reminiscent of those on other airlines, twenty years ago. The few seat adjustments that were present were all manually operated, nothing was electric/electronic. One could recline the seat, swing the leg rest up and out, and there was a mystery third button that might have perhaps been lumbar support, but which did not appear to do anything at all.

I'd guess the seats to have about a 48" pitch, with a moderate amount of seat recline, and good seat width. Tray tables come out of the side of the seats, and each seat has its own video monitor. There is one overhead light per seat, and (as is increasingly common) no personal air vent.

There was no computer power supply at the seat, although using the computer (on the tray table) was comfortable and convenient, even when the seat in front was reclined. A very small blanket and a small airline sized pillow were provided, along with cheap headphones and a typical amenities kit, notable only for an unusually sturdy pair of slippers.

Aeroflot now operates all its flights as entirely non-smoking flights. An occasional suspicious odor from the toilets makes one suspect that not all passengers completely observe this edict, but before too long, the toilets usually mask any smoke odors with much stronger (and nastier) odors of their own.

I've sometimes used a toilet shortly after getting on board in Seattle, before the plane takes off, and alas, even then, the toilet is often noticeably malodorous. By the time the ten hour flight to Moscow concludes, the toilets are usually awful. Happily, this flight was an exception (probably due to the light passenger load) and the spacious toilet remained clean throughout.

Most of the cabin staff are bilingual and speak English as well as Russian. But the language they'll use to address you is sometimes whimsical. On one flight, they spoke exclusively in English to the Russian gentleman seated next to me (he didn't understand English) while preferring to communicate with me in Russian (my Russian is very limited)! All announcements are in both Russian and English.

Food and Drink

The service started pleasantly enough with a choice of water or orange juice being offered prior to takeoff, and a hot moist towel (cotton, not paper) being given immediately after takeoff.

The food was acceptable, as it has been on other flights in the past. However, a colleague blames an attack of food poisoning on the business class food he ate during a Moscow to London Aeroflot flight (earlier this year), and also recounts with considerable emotion another flight where his hot chicken stew was still frozen in the middle (in 2002).

In coach class, Aeroflot ration passengers to only two free drinks. They are slightly more generous in business class, but you wouldn't think that Russia is a country noted for its love of drink, based on the miserly drinks offered onboard.

Perhaps that is why some passengers conspicuously bring their own bottles of spirits on board (especially in coach class)!

I was pleasantly surprised to see them serving (non-vintage) Veuve Clicquot champagne, and so asked for a glass. Alas, the champagne was warm. In addition to the champagne, there was a generic bottle of red wine and a generic bottle of (also warm) white wine - I couldn't see the labels and they were not described in any way. Beer, juices, sodas, and spirits (in miniature bottles) were also available.

For the main meal, shortly after takeoff, we had an appetizer, entree, dessert, and then cheese and grapes. There were no printed menus, and we were offered a choice of two entree choices, described solely (and in typical Russian fashion) as either 'fish' or 'chicken' with no additional information on type of fish or style of cooking.

We were given metal cutlery, but only one each knife, fork, and spoon, meaning we had to re-use the knife and fork for the appetizer and entree. It used to be (on other airlines) that one would be given a dazzling profusion of cutlery and more than one could ever use, or, in some cases, one would be carefully given exactly the cutlery needed to reflect the food one had ordered, but not with Aeroflot.

One loses one's sensitivity to tastes at higher altitudes, and for this reason I tend to heavily pepper (and lightly salt) my food. But the little paper sachet of pepper contained less than 1/100th of an ounce of pepper - hardly enough to generate any excitement on a single slice of tomato, let alone an entire meal!

A light 'breakfast' was also served shortly before arrival in Moscow, with a choice of either pancakes or omelet. I didn't want any hot food, and so the flight attendant decided not to provide me with any food at all, and also did not offer me any tea, coffee or juice!

Basically the business class service was reminiscent of other airlines' international coach class service a couple of decades ago, and a pale shadow of business class service on a premium international airline today.

Entertainment

Aeroflot publish a massive 350 page in-flight magazine, but almost 90% of this is in Russian. There was also tantalizing reference to a second publication that would have movie details and a duty-free catalog, but none of the seven seats that I looked at had a copy of these elusive references.

I subsequently secured from a flight attendant a copy of the duty free guide (very little on offer and not particularly good pricing), and perhaps I misunderstood about the movie guide, because there was not exactly a bewildering assortment of movies to choose from.

Although blessed with individual seat video screens, which in theory suggested a capability for nine video channels, for most of the flight all they offered was an excellent version of the 'moving map' display, showing where the plane was and details of its speed, arrival time, etc. One movie was screened early in the 10.5 hour flight on a second channel, but for the rest of the flight, there was no additional in-flight entertainment offered.

Official Financial Issues

Aeroflot claims to operate a three class service between Seattle and Moscow, and there are indeed three cabins on the 777s and 767s that fly between the two cities for First, Business and Coach class passengers. There are always people to be found seated in all three classes.

But, strangely enough, neither Expedia, Orbitz nor Travelocity show any first class fares; just business and coach class fares! Aeroflot tell me that they do offer first class fares (ranging in price from $4080 up to $5252 roundtrip) and couldn't explain why they didn't appear on these websites, but said that travel agents would know about them.

Business class fares start at $2500, and coach class fares range in price depending on the time of year. Lowest coach fares can be as little as $500, and sometimes as much as $1100.

Now for the trick that few people know about. The Aeroflot business class cabin is usually fairly empty (and coach class is sometimes very full). You can purchase one way upgrades when checking in for your flight at the airport. If there is space in business class, they'll immediately upgrade you into the business class cabin, in return for a $500 fee (each way).

The flight is about ten hours, and so the extra $500 translates to a not ridiculously expensive $50/hour for greater comfort, privacy, better food and service.

The extra $1000 for the roundtrip upgrade, when added to the $500-1100 coach class fare, comes to very much less than the starting cost of $2500 for a regular business class ticket. I always buy business class this way.

Amazingly, neither Russia nor Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport charge any type of taxes or fees. That meant that in addition to the fare, there was 'only' the staggering $46 in US taxes to be added (not all that long ago, taxes on an international ticket were less than $10 - what extra are we getting in the way of airport services or convenience in return for the massive increase in air travel taxes?).

Unofficial Financial Issues

The Russian counter agent in Seattle recognized me when I was checking in for the flight, and when I asked to buy a $500 upgrade to business class and showed her my Visa, she asked me a curious question - 'Do you have cash?' I said I didn't, so she took my Visa card and made a big show of laboriously and reluctantly charging it, and I wondered if perhaps I was missing an opportunity to get a 'cash discount', but didn't test the issue any further.

However, after boarding the plane, I noticed and listened to a fellow passenger 'working his charm' to get upgraded from coach to business class. He asked to be upgraded, and cited vague medical reasons. More convincing was his indicating that he had cash and was prepared to spend it to move into business class. A short while later he was seated in the largely empty business class!

We spoke and he is apparently an old hand at this game. He told me that he paid $100 in cash to get his business class upgrade 'under the table', and interestingly said normally he does a similar transaction when checking in, but, alas, he wasn't able to check in with the agent who he knows is most receptive to cash offers (not the same agent I checked in with).

So, it would seem, for the more adventurous, there are opportunities for unofficial cash upgrades. I resolved to try for myself on my return flight.

At the counter, I had an unexpected result. The ticket agent refused to accept any amount of cash, and refused to upgrade me officially, either. Although the fare rules specifically state that the upgrades can only be purchased when checking in, she refused to sell me an upgrade any which way!

Undaunted, I tried on the plane. I was quickly and conspiratorially hustled into a galley, where two women stared at me and said, flatly, 'the price is $200'. I protested, and said 'the normal price that I paid on the way over is only $100'.

Upon hearing this, one of the women fixed me with the most hateful stare I have ever experienced, and told me to get lost. I realized that they had made themselves vulnerable to me - by exposing their dishonesty, and not having me buy into it as a co-conspirator, they felt vulnerable and hated me for 'tricking' them. I have truly never seen such a malevolent stare on anyone's face ever before, and hope I'll never see it again in the future.

Aeroflot Website(s) and Frequent Flier Program

Aeroflot have an extraordinary number of different websites. The one with the main US focus is www.Aeroflot.com and in addition to this they have a Russian site at www.Aeroflot.ru that is available in both Russian and English. This second site has a completely different 'look and feel' and has different content. And then, various other regional offices also have their own independent sites - there is a list of them here (this list surprising doesn't include the .com site!).

Aeroflot also has a separate site for its Frequent Flier program, 'Aeroflot Bonus', in both Russian and English.

Their frequent flier program is probably only of value to you if you plan on becoming a regular visitor to Russia. The program is not particularly generous, and awards are essentially limited to flights on Aeroflot itself. Similarly, you can't earn credit for flights on other airlines. Worst of all, miles you earn quickly expire (between 2 and 3 years after each flight), making it difficult for occasional travelers to ever be able to cash in their miles.

On the positive side of the ledger, they give a 100% bonus for business class travel (and 200% bonus for first class travel). On my Seattle-Moscow flight I earned 8341 points (one per kilometer) plus another 8341 bonus points, a total of 16,682 points. 80,000 points are required for a roundtrip coach class ticket and 120,000 points for business class. In other words, five paid roundtrip coach class fares get you one free; and four paid roundtrip business class fares get you one free.

Summary

The good news : The cost of Aeroflot's business class fare is less than one third of that charged by other airlines between Seattle and Moscow.

The bad news : Aeroflot's business class service is barely tolerable. It is lacking in amenities and extras before, during, and after the flight.

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Originally published 22 Aug 2003, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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