The Parallax Brief


Unrepentant Subjectivity on Economics, Politics, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Russia


Several months ago, I had to travel from Moscow to the small city of Votkinsk in the Udmertia region for a friend’s wedding. I insisted on taking the train, despite knowing it would involve 18 hours travelling time instead of the three it would take to fly. Why? Because of stories like this from the Moscow Times:

“When passengers on Aeroflot Flight 315 heard the pilot make his preflight announcement, they knew something was amiss. The pilot’s voice was garbled, barely intelligible — and that was in his native Russian. When he switched to English, it was impossible to understand him at all.

“The first thought that occurred to me was, ‘This guy is drunk,'” said Khatuna Kobiashvili, a passenger on the Moscow-New York flight. “His speech was so slurred it was hard to tell what language he was speaking.”

As passengers, including a Moscow Times reporter, related their concerns to the flight crew, they were told to “stop making trouble” or get off the Boeing 767 jet. A passenger who called Aeroflot’s head office received a similar rebuff.”

After a chaotic hour during which passengers pleaded with flight attendants, crew and several Aeroflot representatives who boarded the plane, unexpected help came from socialite and TV host Ksenia Sobchak, who was also on the plane, and all four pilots were replaced.”

The story is a dead cert to become a viral favourite, but serious questions have to be asked of Aeroflot. 

First, how on God’s green earth did this man get onto the plane? Aeroflot denies he was drunk, but eye witnesses claim that when he was eventually persuaded to emerge from the cockpit an hour after the fracas erupted, he couldn’t walk properly, and had a red face and bloodshot eyes. Aeroflot claims it is possible he suffered a stroke just prior to getting on the plane, but this doesn’t square with the company’s reassurance that each pilot undergoes “a battery of physical tests” before each flight. 

And even if he did suffer a stroke, this doesn’t explain why a man so obviously unable to take charge of an aeroplane was allowed on board as captain.

Second, it has to be said that it is fairly typical of Russia that the cabin crew flatly ignored the demands of the ordinary passengers and only acquiesced when Ksenia “the Russian Paris Hilton” Sobchak intervened. Customer services in Russia is so bad I sometimes wonder whether the phrase even has a direct translation into Russian, and the prevailing tendency is to cower before the VIPs and treat the rest of us like serfs – despite being paying customers. 

Quite what would have happened had Sobchak not been on board doesn’t bear thinking about.

Finally, this represents a public relations disaster for the Russian national carrier. The Moscow Times broke the story on the same day it revealed that alcohol had been found in the blood of the deceased pilot of the Aeroflot subsidiary Aeroflot Nord aeroplane which crashed in September, killing 88 people. 

Aeroflot is desperate to avoid being tarnished by the abysmal airline safety record of the Former Soviet Republics, the worst in the world, while simultaneously grappling with the legacy of the company’s Soviet era reputation for inedible food and surly service.

Yet the message doesn’t seem to have reached the PR department. “Read about it on the Internet,” Aeroflot spokesperson Irina Dannenberg advised the Moscow Times when asked for comment. Immediately after the flight, she had told reporters that the airline might sue Sobchak for the cost of delaying the flight, and blamed the incident on “mass psychosis”. 

Aeroflot is clearly furious that passengers had the temerity to ask to replace a pilot clearly unfit to fly. After all, another Aeroflot representative said “It’s not such a big deal if the pilot is drunk. Really, all he has to do is press a button and the plane flies itself.”

Who needs the comedy provided by throwing together a drunk pilot, the Russian Paris Hilton and 100 people in mass psychosis when you’ve got the Aeroflot PR department?

Filed under: Russia, , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses

  1. Luna says:

    OMG. Thanks a lot!! I’ve got an Aeroflot flight booked for March. I can start taking my anti-anxiety pills now. 🙂

  2. parallaxbrief says:

    Sorry Luna. All I can do is hope your pilot has good diction.

  3. I’m flying Aeroflot at the end of the month, too. But I’m going to avoid them like the plague after that! Assuming I survive.

  4. parallaxbrief says:

    I think there are three issues here: First is the fact that such unprofessional people clearly work for Aeroflot, and that he managed to get on the plane. Second is the awful customer services style — shut the hell up, serfs.

    But almost as bad, in my book, is the dreadful PR. I mean, if this was in the West, they’d be giving the passengers free flights for life and trying to skillfully cover it up, but failing that, they’d be arranging a public investigation, communicating with papers, making it clear that it was a one off, distancing themselves from the pilot, and making some ritual sacrifices within the management team.

    Here, they try to make excuses and then get irritable with the press for asking more questions. It simply makes the situation worse. Heads should roll in the PR department.

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