The Parallax Brief

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

Aeroflot Excuses Don’t Fly

"I'd like to velcome passengers to zis Aeroflot flight to New York."

After a now infamous incident involving an allegedly drunk – but undoubtedly unfit for purpose – pilot on an Aeroflot trans-Atlantic flight from Moscow, the airline has finally decided that the bad press surrounding the episode isn’t really doing it much good, and has apologized.

The original response from the Aeroflot PR team was comically awful, including Aeroflot representative Irina Dannenberg advising a reporter calling the company for comment to “read about it on the internet”, and another representative telling passengers immediately after the incident that “it is not such a big deal if the pilot was drunk.”

The apology, therefore, is certainly a welcome step forward. 

But even this more communicative front raises more questions than it answers. Instead admitting fault and announcing the launch of an independent enquiry to investigate the entire incident and make recommendations for the company’s future conduct, Aeroflot’s deputy CEO, Lev Koshlyakov, speaking to English language daily, the Moscow Times, still resorted to a range of asinine excuses that hark back to Soviet PR efforts.

“He was in an extreme state of stress when he went out to talk to the passengers. He normally doesn’t speak very clearly as it is, and… Our pilots aren’t trained for direct contact with passengers.”

Riiiggght.

Are we seriously expected to believe that the whole incident was simply a case of a man with poor diction and sociophobia? To be sure, not everyone can perform like Barak Obama when speaking to a crowd, but Aeroflot can’t expect us to believe that the lack of special training meant that just opening a door to prove sobriety caused such an extreme reaction that he instantly succumbed to symptoms which closely resembled acute alcoholic intoxication.

And another thing: where is the pilot?

The airline still asserts he did not test positive for alcohol after being removed from the plane, yet can only offer speculation that he may have suffered a stroke immediately prior to the flight. How long does a stroke take to diagnose? And this still does not explain why his fellow pilots or air crew allowed him to board. 

Aeroflot explains the pilot’s absence for media interviews by claiming he is undergoing treatment for an as yet undisclosed condition and that his position at the company will be decided after the completion of said treatment. For what and for how long remains a mystery. 

(I usually find that treatment centres unnecessary: a monstrous, greasy bacon sandwich washed down with a couple of litres of an energy drink with electrolytes tends to do the job for me.)

A good PR department would have made clear immediately that he and all those associated with the flight had been suspended pending a full investigation. Aeroflot’s efforts seem to be simply a case of retreating behind their walls, shrouding the incident and mystery. They might as well have specifically designed their PR response to provide conflicting evidence and invite speculation.

The incident itself was shocking, but almost as bad has been the amateurish performance of the Aeroflot PR/corporate communications department.

Their explanations just don’t fly.

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Alcoflot!

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?

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