This tale is for those who are contemplating a domestic flight in Russia. In retrospect, I felt quite safe during the flight, it was a fun experience, and certainly great for those travellers who are seeking a taste of the ways of the old Soviet system.
The trip from the centre of St Petersburg (Leningrad during the Soviet period) to the domestic terminal took about 45 mins on a Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t possible to drive up to the terminal so the driver parked about 200 metres away, and ran with our two suitcases to the entrance whilst we hurried behind with hand luggage and our guide Olga who was going to see us checked in. We tipped our helpful driver and he was off.
The exterior of the terminal looked modern and large, but when we entered the Rossiya area it was tiny with three counters and a very small checkin area.
Olga pushed her way past people and ushered us to a counter manned by a passive faced middle-aged lady. We presented our paper e –tickets [totally in Russian issued by Aeroflot Sydney] to her. We were instructed to place all our bags including hand luggage one at a time onto some scales, and she manually wrote figures on a piece of paper. There was then a discussion with Olga who then informed us that we were 23.7kg overweight as it weighed in total 63.7kg. I was stunned.
I pointed out to Olga that it said 20kg on the ticket, and pointed to a sign in Russian on the counter with a picture to indicate that hand baggage limit was 8kg. So we were in fact only 7.7kg over. The supervisor was called and we were told the same again.
No I said again to Olga. It says 20kg on the ticket and 8 kg on the counter – it is always 20kg plus hand luggage all round the world. I was exasperated but polite. More discussion between Olga and the supervisor and then Olga understands. She tells me that the writing on the ticket (that I cannot read) says the 20kg INCLUDES hand luggage! Now I wish I had asked Natasha in Sydney to explain what my unintelligible ticket said. Were they telling the truth? I suspected they were. No point in arguing further.
So I gave up – OK the Ruskies win this one, Mr. Bond. [007 movie music in background] What is the cost, please? The supervisor almost smiled and then wrote 20kg on the e-ticket – Olga says we are only paying for 20kg – thenkyou (with Russian accent). So how much? In Australia would be at least $10 a kg. Surprise surprise – only 70 rubles a kg, so total cost only about $60. Not so bad.
We are told to take the two cases to another counter to be placed through an X-ray machine, and then they are placed with a pile of luggage behind the desks where porters are collecting the cases to go on trolleys to the plane – no conveyor belts here.
Olga then leads us into another room around the corner to pay the excess. No English signs so if you were on your own good luck!
Then I swear, crouched behind the counter in a very official uniform is a lady I instantly recognize – the scowling, tough, KGB interviewer that confronted Sean Connery – or perhaps on second thoughts and calculations this is her daughter. I smile, [waste of time] and present my Visa [card]. She processes, thrusts receipt at me, and with that in hand, we head back to the original counter again. Thank goodness for Olga.
No queuing now but to the head of the line, present the paper and the lady disappears to return almost smiling and present us with our boarding cards. Hooray!
Olga bid us farewell at security, I tipped her generously, and we went forward to where we each had to enter a booth in turn which X-rayed us [ long before we saw thenm in the West) and then the hand luggage was searched. We were told in no uncertain terms to drink or dispose of the two bottles of water in a bin. This we did and made our way down a set of stairs to a very very small departure lounge area.
At this point we noticed the locals all coming down the stairs behind us with their bottles of water in hand – either they had ignored the instructions or had been let off. Probably the former.
It was now 1815 with a sign saying [I suppose] that boarding of our 1855 flight was at 1830. You couldn’t get lost – one door opening onto the runway and buses outside. There was a tiny coffee shop/bar in the corner of the room so I went to get two coffees.
I was greeted by a large, fat, friendly Russian in football supporters’ gear. It looked like he was celebrating a big win. I slowly said “kan gar oo” and he laughed – it usually works. If not, then put hands in front and make hopping signs – or perhaps say, Neighbours! He invited me to share his vodka, which I did – straight down the hatch. We shook hands and I bought two coffees for about AUD 10 – all airports are all the same!
At 1840 a lady appeared – no hurry. We queued in a mad scramble, and by 1855 we were at last on one of 3 very crowded buses. As we crossed the tarmac there were at least 20 Rossiya planes of all sizes – this is their home.
At the plane 158 people all tried to get up one set of stairs at the same time, so a lady at the bottom let a dozen or so at a time through.
At last, it was our turn. We were met at the top of the stairs by a smart, attractive, middle-aged hostie and we made our way to our seats with our considerable hand luggage. By now we had worked out that we were not seated together but in the same row – Hilda in the middle of 3 and me on opposite isle.
As I approached the seats I could see a major major problem. The overhead lockers were tiny and would take a lady’s handbag at best. And the seats were so close together that as I attempted to get my bag under the seat in front I could do nothing but jam it between my seat and the back of the seat in front – so where was I going to sit? The bag wouldn’t move let alone go under.
At this point I started to lose it – heated discussion with Hilda – me cursing this hopeless airline etc. The locals got the drift! Polite hostie shows me that my seat lifts up and back so I can then slide bag part way under the seat in front. And if I put my feet UNDER the bag I can just fit in. I can’t put feet on top of bag – back of the seat in front is too close to my face. Thank goodness the seats don’t recline or I would be ruined for life!
I look around and see my new found drinking buddy is in the exit row behind.He must be head of the football club. He now has vodka bottle in hand, and has now suffered serious deterioration. He is stretched out with legs across the exit and huge bare stomach protruding from his football shirt. He spots me and shouts and gives a big wave – OH NO! I give him a faint smile and wave, and become totally engrossed in the inflight magazine.
A few minute later two hosties manage to remove the bottle from him, he attempts to stand and falls across the aisle to hit the back of Hilda’s seat with a crash. He is put back to his seat and they get an extension for his seatbelt to go around his huge stomach. My life is in his hands if we need to exit in a hurry. I am so glad I made friends with him.
After the preflight ritual, we taxi down the runway and take off at 1925 – 30 mins late. I had been warned about Russian pilots, so was not surprised when we were forced back in our seats as he attempted to put the plane into a vertical takeoff at the speed of sound – he almost succeeded.
Soon the hosties came around with tea/coffee and tasty meat/salad sandwich and it was all very civilized. They were very efficient, professional, and friendly.
The inflight magazine was fascinating as I saw that we were in a TU154M, and this airline has a very impressive domestic and international network with Airbuses, Boeing 767s etc. It is a substantial carrier but you wouldn’t want to be going too far on this crowded plane.
We were over Moscow by 2010 but sent to perform tight circles [pilot practicing dogfights] for 20 mins and finally landed at 2035 and off the plane by 2045 still 30 mins late. But it happens to me regularly from Sydney to Brisbane so no big deal!
After leaving the plane we found the carousel easily, and baggage came off very quickly and there were plenty of FREE trolleys. I could see our driver through an exit waiting with a sign, and here I was very impressed by the procedure. Each person was stopped, and their baggage sticker that was given at check in was carefully checked against the number on the sticker on their bags. So no one was leaving with someone else’s luggage – very good idea.
At DME Moscow airport the domestic is next to and in the same building as the international, and the car park is at the latter, so it was a long long walk through the terminal to the car park, but easy to do.
Summary. Would I fly domestic again in Russia? Yes if necessary. I’d have little/nil hand luggage and allow an extra hour in case there is a language problem at check in.
I had no fears about the plane/flight. It was modern, if rather basic aircraft, but the crew were excellent and no doubt the pilots can fly fighter aircraft in all weather so I had no worries there! And during the flight all announcements are in English and Russian.
One of our staff told me on my return that the locals hide their hand luggage from staff at check in, but I’m not sure foreigners could cope with that.