My plane had just landed at Don Muong airport in Bangkok after a flight from Hong Kong. As the passengers were disembarking to board the buses that would take them to immigration and customs, I walked by two carts of baggage being loaded onto the twice-weekly afternoon Aeroflot flight between Bangkok and Moscow.
However, as the luggage was being loaded into the belly of the Soviet Ilyushin 62 jet aircraft, I noticed that instead of being tagged for Moscow, most of the bags had all been tagged LHR, for London's Heathrow Airport.
That was strange indeed. As any official airline schedule book will reflect, Aeroflot doesn't fly between Bangkok and London. And, to the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as an Aeroflot charter flight.
But as I was soon to discover, that is only the official story. A few hours later I placed a call to the Aeroflot ticket office in Bangkok.
"Do you fly to London?" I asked.
There was a short pause.
"Yes, we do, twice a week. On Mondays and Wednesdays at 5:45 in the afternoon."
"But isn't that your Bangkok to Moscow flight?"
Yes, she admitted it was. I would be required to change planes in Moscow.
The price? About $600 round trip. No reservations were required. No visa to Russia was necessary to make the connecting flight to London. It was a good $400 less than the cheapest advance ticket offered by either British Airways or Thai International.
Was there a catch? Not really, but I was cautioned that one had to be patient about such flights. The Monday departure featured a 12-hour layover in Moscow and the Wednesday flight required an overnight stay in the Soviet capital. In each case, the Aeroflot agent assured me, the airline would provide accommodations "and," she added, "sometimes, if the weather is good, we give a city tour free, too."
None of the fares or flights are advertised, but a growing number of travelers who simply want to save money already know about this underground "Aeroflot Connection." It is a cheap way of getting to dozens of places around the world by way of Moscow.
For example, the regular coach fare between Paris and Lima runs about U.S.$1,300. Aeroflot, hungry for hard currency, will sell you a ticket for $727, if you go out of your way to stop in Moscow first.
And, because there are never any convenient flight connections in Moscow, the Russians will again throw in a free overnight hotel.
Aeroflot offers these tickets in open violation of most bilateral agreements signed between foreign countries governing flight operations, routes and frequencies.
London to Montego Bay
Here are some other examples:
London to Montego Bay, Jamaica, will cost $1,002 for a round-trip ticket on British Airways. On Aeroflot, via Moscow, the ticket will cost $747. (If you look at a map, the London-Moscow-Jamaica routing is a silly one; it makes no sense unless you have lots of extra time and want to save money.)
On at least one route, Aeroflot offers the quickest flying time, as well as the cheapest ticket. On the London-Tokyo run, Aeroflot flies the route in 14 hours and charges $887 round trip. The cheapest British Airways flight costs $875 each way.
Aeroflot, which boasts that it is the world's largest airline, flies from 120 worldwide destinations and to all major European cities. And in almost every case, the Russians undercut the competition.
And while other foreign countries and their airlines are aware of the scam, no one is doing anything about it.
"We watch them very carefully here," says Chatrachai Bunya-Ananta, executive vice president for Thai Airways, "and so far their market share is only between 2% and 3%. We know and they know that what they are doing is violating our agreements, but so far, we have chosen to ignore their activities. Their impact on our market is a margin we will accept. If it ever increases, we will make a fuss."
Other foreign airlines declined comment.
In some countries, including England, Aeroflot openly advertises this great deal. One company in London, AWL Travel, has been selling Aeroflot tickets on these bizarre routings for 10 years.
"No one has ever complained about us," says a spokeswoman. "As far as we're concerned, as long as Aeroflot flies the routes, we can sell the tickets, no questions asked. The other great thing about these tickets is that none of them require advance purchase or reservations. If we have a seat, you fly, and you fly cheaply."
The most popular AWL Aeroflot offerings include flights to Delhi, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur; Aeroflot's once-a-week flight to destinations in South America, and flights from Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Zurich, Brussels and Rome. (There's even an Aeroflot flight from Luxembourg to Moscow that "connects" to other Aeroflot flights around the world.)