Cocktails, linen napkins, even a smile: Aeroflot's transformation is complete; Competition, new culture push Russian carrier into realm of real service


MOSCOW -- The placemat was big as Siberia, the matching linen napkin crisp as the ever-falling snow. The smile on the face of the flight attendant was as effervescent as the champagne in his outstretched hand.

It was first-class all the way, from the deep leather seat to the free pair of slippers. Could this really be Aeroflot?

Was this the same airline that once resembled a bus station in the sky? Was this the airline where the carpets were soiled and the seat belts sometimes broken? Everyone who has ever flown it has his own Aeroflot story, and they are never pretty.

Archangel comes to mind. On one flight in the early 1990s from Moscow to that city near the Arctic Circle, the flight attendants worked with great energy and clinking of dishes in the galley. Pleasant aromas began to waft through the cabin. Silverware jangled. Trays were loaded -- and marched right past the expectant passengers and ceremoniously handed to the crew.

Moscow to Tajikistan, 1991: The menu called for small cans of apple juice, and the crew couldn't find a can opener. Whack! They hacked at the cans with a small emergency ax, and passed out the slightly rusty cans with jagged little cuts on the top.

Tajikistan to Moscow, 1992: A passenger grateful for a polite crew served them coffee, pulling out a jar of instant and spooning it into cups for the appreciative attendants.

Moscow to Armenia, 1993: A nervous passenger, looking out at the icy wind, asked a flight attendant if the plane would be de-iced before takeoff. "Don't worry," came the reply, "as soon as we get up a little speed it will fall right off."

Now it's 1999. There's another flight to Armenia. All the economy seats are gone. The passenger pays $50 more to go first class, relieved to get a seat. But time has passed, and Aeroflot has changed.

The flight attendant hangs the passenger's coat in a closet and offers champagne.

After takeoff, he appears with a cart bearing gin, whisky and cognac. "It's free," he assures the dubious passenger. "Lemon with your gin and tonic?"

Dinner comes with black caviar, two shrimp, smoked salmon, a salad, chicken or fish, dessert. The Thousand Island dressing comes all the way from Atlanta, the peanuts from Rome, Georgia. (All of it, by the way, shipped to Russia through the port of Baltimore.)

The people at Aeroflot grimace when they think of their longstanding image.

It's a burden they're struggling to shake.

They say that much of it comes from the old days, when the domestic and international service was known as Aeroflot.

Today, that once-huge company has splintered into 360 airlines, and the company known as Aeroflot is operated by the people who ran the international service.

"There was always a difference between the international and domestic service," says Yevgeny Lomakin, deputy director of Aeroflot's training school, who arrived there in 1968, two years after it was established. "Then we were very much concerned about how a girl should look."

Vasily Afanasyev, who worked for many years as Aeroflot's representative in the United States, says it was difficult to train flight attendants in those early days.

"The society of that time was a tough society," he says.

"A person couldn't express himself to a foreigner. Would he get in trouble [with the KGB] if he smiled too much at a foreigner? The attitude toward strangers was controlled."

More recently, Afanasyev says, another problem has been discovered. Americans, he explains, are skillful at pasting an artificial smile on their faces whenever they choose, despite what they're feeling inside.

"Russians can't do that," he says. "You see on their faces exactly what they're feeling."

And if that happens to be annoyance or fatigue or disdain, well, that's what you get.

But they're working on becoming more artificial.

"Competition," Lomakin says, a little sadly.

"Aeroflot used to be the only company here, and the watchword was service at a minimum. Now there are many airlines flying in and out of Russia.

"At first, our reaction was a little childish. 'Why are they letting those other companies fly here?' Now we're working hard to compete, and we're changing our culture."

Even during the days of the classless society, Aeroflot international offered first-class service, beginning in the early 1960s on flights from Moscow to Havana and New Delhi.

"It was filled up with the nomenklatura," Lomakin says somewhat disdainfully. "Government ministers and others who never paid their own money. The behavior wasn't of the highest level. They didn't want to compare service, they just wanted more vodka and cognac."

Today, any rich person can fly first class, says Lyubov Sudosiev, who oversees flight attendant training.

"And they expect very good service."

As the snow falls relentlessly outside, the classrooms are filled with flight attendants taking refresher courses, learning safety first, followed by passenger comfort -- and smiles.

One instructor, Sergei Karabekov, stands before his students armed with drawings of airplanes, flotation devices and carts bearing empty bottles of Jack Daniel's, Smirnoff vodka, Bailey's Irish Cream and champagne.

"Now we have very high demands," he says.

"I want everyone to work well, so the company will prosper and so their work will make a good impression. This is my work, which I like very much."

Good service has become easier, says Larisa Rodovich, a flight attendant in the class. Aeroflot flies Boeings and AirBuses in addition to Russian aircraft, and has audio headsets and other amenities.

"I have flown many airlines," Afanasyev says. "And I think Aeroflot service in first class and business class is a lot better than the others.

"Maybe there are not so many smiles, but the cognac is much better."

"And there's more of it!" Lomakin declares.

His smile is as big as a 767.

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