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Executive Travel : Domestic Carriers in Russia, China Shunned : Airlines: Crashes and overloading have become part of the lore, and many execs go out of their way to use other companies.

November 17, 1994|From Associated Press

James Glucksman decided to fly from Moscow to Vladivostok the long way.

Rather than fly direct on a Russian airline, the Washington-based health care consultant decided to take Austrian Airlines to Tokyo, ride a Japanese bullet train north to Niigata, then catch the closest flight back into Vladivostok.

"Eleven hours on Aeroflot is just too much of a risk," Glucksman said.

Glucksman's reticence to fly Aeroflot or smaller Russian airlines spun off from it isn't unusual. Crashes and overloaded jets have become part of the lore for Aeroflot, the monopolistic airline that to outsiders is perhaps the most visible vestige of the former Soviet empire.

In late October, the problem was driven home when two crashes killed 26 people in Siberia, both involving two small, newly privatized airlines.

China's state-run airline system carries a similar stigma. As foreigners pour into both China and Russia to tour and explore business opportunities, they quickly learn the philosophy among their veteran colleagues: Don't fly if you can avoid it.

This summer, the U.S. government banned federal employees from flying on Russian airlines except in emergencies, but it rescinded the ban in October for airlines that can fly internationally. Still, officials and travel agents often suggest using international carriers to get around the region, even if it means much greater expense and longer flights.

The gripes about the airlines aren't limited to fears of crashing. Passengers talk of bad food, seats that flop back into the laps behind them and even an occasional flight with a barnyard animal or two.

"People hate to fly within Russia and, lately, China," said Francis Goranin of Vega International Travel Service Inc. in Chicago. Overcrowded, smelly Russian trains make rail travel an unacceptable alternative for many, he said.

The International Airline Passengers Assn. recommends that travelers also fly out of China, then back in, to avoid domestic Chinese carriers. This can pose absurdly circuitous routes, such as flying from Beijing south to Hong Kong, then Hong Kong north to Shanghai.

"If you have to fly domestic, at least fly Western-built equipment," said David Stempler, executive director of the IAPA. "There seems to be bad chemistry between Russian aircraft and Chinese aviation."

The Civil Aviation Administration of China, which runs the state-owned airlines, has promised improvements. But seasoned foreign travelers remain skeptical.

Kent Morrison, a China scholar and dean of the graduate school at the University of Rhode Island, said he tries to fly at odd hours in China to avoid traffic delays.

"I have been in hold over Shanghai or Beijing and said more than a few prayers. . . . If I have a reasonably short jaunt, or the time, I take the train," Morrison said.

Many people looking to get around western Russia or other former Soviet republics take Lufthansa to Frankfurt before flying back in, or use Finnair to Helsinki, Goranin said.

The IAPA says gate agents in former Soviet states are frequently open to accepting bribes to book a seat, even if the seat is already filled, and sometimes passengers end up sitting in the aisle. Crashes have been blamed on planes burdened with too much cargo. One of the planes that crashed in October was carrying 12 tons of fish products and four automobiles.

In one highly publicized incident last April, a crash was reportedly caused by a pilot's child playing in the cockpit.

The IAPA is concerned not only about Russian airlines but also the entire air traffic control system. "Do not fly to, in or over Russia," is the advice IAPA gives its members.

Charters are available for affluent travelers. Commonwealth Express, a Florida-based company that arranges charters in the former Soviet Union, recently handled a round trip for four people from Moscow to Saratov--about 1 1/2 hours each way--for $10,000. A round-trip ticket on Aeroflot would have been $184.

In the three years Commonwealth has been arranging flights for Westerners on a British Aerospace jet flown by pilots trained in England, the company has seen business grow for flights within Russia, said Verity Minahan, the company's director of planning.

Executives for Boeing Co. don't have much choice but to fly the local airline.

"Those are the places we need to be," spokesman Randy Harrison said, adding that the executives "are the eyes and ears of the company" and report back on sales opportunities.

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