PROVIDENIYA, Soviet Union — From the earliest days of air travel in the Soviet Union, this giant nation has had only one commercial airline, state-owned Aeroflot. Nick Selbakov, who has flown for Aeroflot for 23 years, is trying to establish a second one.
"These are different times," said the 45-year-old Selbakov, justifying his long struggle against the odds. "My government is in a state of flux. Aeroflot's service is poor. Schedules are seldom kept. My country needs competition to help improve its transportation system."
He has been trying for two years to get permission to launch a small private airline in the northeasternmost corner of the Soviet Far East, across the Bering Strait from Alaska.
This is rugged country for flying, and that is evident here at Provideniya, whose airport is the gateway to the Soviet Far East and Siberia for travelers from Alaska. The somewhat grandly named Provideniya International Airport has unlighted gravel runways, and its four-story terminal is crumbling from shoddy construction.
The airport restrooms are in another building, separate men's and women's facilities, each with three openings in worn wooden boards without toilet seats or toilet paper.
Provideniya, population 6,000, nestled at the end of a fiord flanked by barren Arctic mountains, is a seaport on the Bering Strait, with a Soviet air base. A sign in huge letters on a mountain overlooking the airport greets visitors: "Glory to the KGB Border Guards." This region at the top of the world is a land of midnight sun during the summer and of total darkness and extreme cold in winter.
Under Selbakov's plan, he would start modestly, with one American airplane, a single-engine, nine-passenger Cessna-402, and two Soviet planes, both twin turboprops--a 48-passenger AN-24 and an AN-26 cargo plane, "the type of aircraft I have been flying throughout my career," he said.
Aeroflot has not welcomed the idea of a competing airline, Selbakov said, even one as small-scale as the competition he would offer.
"Aeroflot does not think it is a good idea to have another airline in the U.S.S.R. For me, I think it is an excellent idea. I dream of someday being president of a major private Soviet airline as big as United or American Airlines in America. It is OK to have big dreams now that we have perestroika and, hopefully, to accomplish them."
As for the party and government bureaucracy, he said, the response has not been encouraging. "So far, the government hasn't seen fit to acknowledge my application. The Soviet government moves very slowly. Private enterprise is all so new."
Selbakov has appealed for help to the second secretary of the Communist Party for the Magadan Oblast (region), an area nearly three times as large as California, and to the first secretary of the Communist Party for the Chukotka District of Magadan Oblast, where Provideniya is located.
He has already formed his company under Soviet law. The company is called Raduga, which means "rainbow." For capital, he is using his own savings and that of friends, including several Aeroflot pilots and flight crew members.
As Selbakov conceives it, Rainbow Airlines will be an international carrier, flying to several places in the Magadan region and to Alaska. It would carry Americans from Kotzebue, Alaska, to Provideniya and on to several cities in the Soviet Far East. It would transport Soviet passengers throughout the Soviet Union's northeasternmost corner and on to Alaska.
Only one airline now operates regular flights between Alaska and the Soviet Far East--Bering Air, an American carrier based in Nome. Its nine-seat commuter planes fly regular charters on the 235-mile run between Nome and Provideniya, with a passenger load that breaks down to 60% American and 40% Soviet.
One investor in Selbakov's company is Baker Aviation of Kotzebue, 300 miles northeast of Provideniya across the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea.
Selbakov was one of several Soviet citizens who visited Kotzebue, a town of 4,000, for three days last summer on an Aeroflot charter, a friendship flight from Provideniya. There he became friends with Baker Aviation and its family management--Marjorie Baker, 55, the president, and her seven children, all of whom are active in the firm.
Baker Aviation was founded in 1962 by Robert Baker, who was killed in a plane crash six years later. His widow, Marjorie, has operated the airline since. Baker Aviation flies passengers, mail, food and supplies to a dozen isolated Alaskan communities not served by roads. Its gross sales last year were $3.5 million.
After hearing of Selbakov's plan, the Bakers agreed to help him launch Rainbow by leasing him the Cessna he wants. He hopes to buy the two Soviet planes he wants from the Soviet government.