The Travel Adviser: Das v’danya, Aeroflot!

Following the dissolution of the USSR, the carrier was transformed from a state-run enterprise into a semi-privatized company.

October 19, 2015 11:26
Cabin crew members of Russian carrier Aeroflot pose in front of a Sukhoi Superjet 100 airplane

Cabin crew members of Russian carrier Aeroflot pose in front of a Sukhoi Superjet 100 airplane during a photo session at the 51st Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport near Paris. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Here are some fun facts that have zero input to why so many people are flying them. Aeroflot is one of the oldest airlines in the world, tracing its history back to 1923. During the heyday of the Soviet era, Aeroflot was the Soviet national airline and the largest airline in the world.

Following the dissolution of the USSR, the carrier was transformed from a state-run enterprise into a semi-privatized company.

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Aeroflot is still considered the de facto national airline of Russia with the majority owned by the Russian government. No longer flying Russian made planes, its fleet consists of Boeing & Airbus aircraft, and has created a strong vibrant issue representing the new modern Russian society. It joined the Sky Team Airline alliance almost a decade ago together with such auspicious members as Delta Airlines and Air France/KLM.

Its extensive flight network includes flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv and is sold extensively in the Israeli marketplace to fly beyond Moscow to Europe, the Far East, Asia and the United States. Promoting its policy of permitting two free checked bags and competing successfully in the lower range of airfares to North America it has established a strong presence among the traveling public. However, decades of communist rule and an iron fist wielded by President Vladamir Putin has created a scenario where problem solving is met with one simple word: nyet.

The phone call came in sounding more like a wounded person gasping for air.

“We missed our flight; we’re stuck in Moscow Airport. Help.”

The connection was weak but the story began to coalesce. Yael and her daughter had purchased a ticket on Aeroflot that had them flying Tel Aviv to Moscow at 1:00 a.m., a four-hour layover in Moscow, arriving in JFK in the early afternoon, and then connecting with Delta down to Orlando.

While most of Israel was planning on celebrating Succot, the Festival of Booths, they had planned for nearly six months to spend their hard earned holiday gallivanting with Mickey Mouse and his friends.

Seasoned travelers they are their selection was based primarily on price and convenience of timing and allowing them to combine time in Orlando with a few days to support the US economy in New York on their way back to Israel.

My first reaction was how do you miss a connecting flight with such a long layover.

Boarding passes were issued at Ben-Gurion Airport for both flights and they were simply switching from one Aeroflot plane to another. A quick check saw the plane had left on time so the first question was had they fallen asleep in the airport? No doubt many readers have experienced or know of flyers that so exhausted from their first flight, slept soundly among the chaos and cacophony that exists in airline terminals. No, she said, they waited at the boarding gate wide awake for the call to board their plane which never arrived. Only a few minutes from the actual departure time did she approach a counter, only to be told the plane was already boarded and they somehow missed the flight. Give Yael credit, while she blames the physical layout of the airport, her lack of initiative in finding a human being well before the scheduled departure time meant she bore the bulk of responsibility.

We’ve had passengers stuck in duty free, in the lavatories or simply oblivious to the time of their connecting flight who have missed their flights. Seasoned travelers know that the myth that a plane won’t take off if the luggage has been checked but the passenger isn’t physically present is in most instances just that... a myth. In their case, they hadn’t even checked luggage so security concerns were never an issue.

More to her credit, and no doubt a bit embarrassed she chose to solve the problem herself and approached the ticket desk falling upon an Aeroflot employee. Nyet, she was told, you missed your flight. Yes, she thanked him for pointing out the obvious and asked if she could be put on their next flight to JFK and a later flight down to Orlando. Nyet she was told, once she missed the flight to New York, her Delta flight to Orlando was canceled. And to add salt to the wound, her return flights from JFK to Tel Aviv, via Moscow at the height of the holiday season were also canceled.

At this stage, with tears streaming down her face, she reached out to us. I walked her through what to ask, provided her with the information on the next Aeroflot and Delta flights. Assured her there were seats, but that she would have to pay a steep penalty as the lower fare tickets she had purchased months ago were all sold out. A quick calculation showed they would probably hit her up for $500 each.

Mr. Alexander was the name of the stone faced Aeroflot employee. Using figures more germane to buying a Fabergé egg, he quoted her $1,282 for the flight to New York and $2,600 for the flights back from New York via Moscow to Tel Aviv. In all candor, I was aghast at what she communicated to me believing that his poor English was causing a lack of comprehension. The next flight to JFK had lots of space in economy class; the later Delta flight to Orlando also had seats available, so how was he making his calculations.

Her plea for him to speak to me was rebuffed so I instructed Yael to hold her phone directly in front of him.

Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, one of his greatest novels, focusing on the mental anguish and moral dilemma of an impoverished ex-student. Yael’s crime of missing her flight was now to be punished severely. Over and over again, like a staccato record, he repeated. “You missed your flight, you have no flights.” “You want to fly, you have to pay.”

When Yael pointed out that her agent could see that the flights had not yet been canceled, he added a nice addendum: “You missed your flight, you have no flights – they will be canceled in the next two hours.”

This gotcha moment was what I was waiting for, an admission that there was a chink in the Russian armor that for some reason, like a character from an Isaac Babel short story, the truth would win out. Foolish was I, for the steel jaw of comrade Alexander was not to be bent. No matter how many times we told him the flights were still in the system, he refused to budge.

How do you get past a Russian tank? You simply walk around it. A quick pricing of a one way ticket from New York to Tel Aviv on their still reserved flights came out at $375. Issuing them before their system would realize she was a no show solved the problem of getting them back to Israel from New York at the conclusion of their holiday.

Reserving them on a later Delta flight from JFK to Orlando was completed in under a minute. However it was the last flight of the day and she would have less than two hours to navigate entering the US, going through Passport and Customs Control, switch terminals and approach the Delta counter with an Aeroflot ticket showing her original Delta flight. I warned her that the odds of making the flight were not high and that while there was an early morning flight the next morning, any overnight costs would be borne by her.

This still left Yael requiring Aeroflot’s assistance for a one way ticket on their soon to be boarding flight to JFK. As it was under airport control, I was unable to issue it and sadly told her to pay him the $1,282 for the one way ticket to JFK.

At this stage her luck finally began to turn. Her flight to New York was uneventful; in fact she was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the plane was, enjoyed the media entertainment system and felt the in-flight stewards were quite accommodating.

Perhaps she had a few shots of vodka, but sleep came easy to her.

Arriving on time to JFK, she saw the line at Passport Control was snaked around the terminal. Possessing every ounce of strength she had she took her daughter by the hand and marched to the front of the line, explaining the urgency. Americans it seems are more touched by the mother/ daughter combination and bumped her to the front of the line. The same practice was repeated at the Customs line with the same result. Racing outside, she saw in the distance Terminal 2 where the Delta flight would depart from. Unable to wait for the free transit bus that takes passengers between the terminals, they darted along dazed people as they ran and hopped from sidewalk to sidewalk, eschewing parked cars and police vehicles until they found refuge at the Delta counter.

The Delta ground attendant took her Aeroflot tickets and with a wide smile informed her that economy class was sold out and they were being bumped up to business class. America! The holiday was spectacular, New York was hospitable and their return flight with its stop and switching of planes in Moscow went off without a hitch. Which leads us to the issue of compensation; what can she get and what should she get? Aeroflot, like many airlines in Israel, uses a general sales agent to represent them. In this case, a company called Open Skies that manages dozens of airlines was both courteous and accommodating agreeing on the spot to refund her the entire amount of airport taxes for her original ticket which weren’t utilized.

This will come to several hundred dollars.

A formal complaint has been filed with Aeroflot requesting a full refund on the new tickets that she was forced to purchase stating that “Aeroflot’s employees should have shown more consideration to our plight. I feel you took advantage of my distress and helpless situation being only with my 15-year-old daughter, knowing that I actually didn’t have a choice and was actually a captured passenger.”

I’m skeptical they will relent, as the letter of the law is on their side. What I will advise is that she sues them in small claims court as the spirit of the law was violated. The fact that the rest of her flights had not yet been canceled meant she should have been penalized, charged a change fee and her original ticket reissued. Justice may be blind, but it’s certainly not immune to the tale of two women alone and abandoned by Aeroflot.

The author is the CEO of Ziontours in Jerusalem. For questions and comments: [email protected]

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