In Moscow, the international airport and domestic airport are not one and the same. As a matter of fact, they are over an hour apart by cab. The arrival of the international flights and the departure of the domestic flights are most often so unpredictable that one can't help but wonder if it isn't all part of an elaborate Russian plan to get travelers to stay at least one night in Moscow.
This is precisely what Peter Huntsman, David Horne and I did. While the Hotel Belgrade was a forgettable experience during our one night stop-over, the strange exchanges with the hotel staff in the lobby around midnight were well worth the effort spent. I am careful to refer to them as exchanges because all we did was exchange views on several subjects, that certainly does not constitute a conversation. I like the Russian people. Everyone I met I liked. Their patience with the Soviet system of government is, however, a source of enormous amazement to me.The flight the next morning to Armenia brought all of this sense of wonderment back to my mind.
We arrived at 5:30 a.m. - an hour and a half before our departure time. Even at this very early hour, the cavernous waiting hall of the domestic terminal was filled to its capacity. There was not an empty seat to be found.
The Russian travelers were either in a deep sleep or wandering about with the lost look of a dazed college freshman. It was my guess that approximately 1,500 hopeful travelers were in this condition. It would appear that they had been here for days, possibly weeks, awaiting the announcement of their Aeroflot flight. It was a rather drab and dismal environment. The walls and ceilings had a faded tint to them. There were fluorescent lights above and cold terrazo floors below. It was difficult to describe the seating because it was totally occupied or piled upward with what could only be loosely referred to as luggage.
We learned when we checked into the Intourist desk that we, too, were going to become a part of this dreary backdrop because our flight to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, had been delayed five hours.
This disappointing news was passed on to us by a young woman seated behind the Intourist desk. Her name, she said, was Mirriam. She told us she worked 24 hours straight, "From 9 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then I have 24 hours off. I do this schedule six days a week." We told her she looked just fine for someone who had been working for 21 hours straight. She blushed slightly and went back to her reading.
I chose to wander about this large building filled with waiting Russians who hoped someday to be passengers. The only Aeroflot personnel I sighted were three pilots in blue uniforms in a small room behind an abandoned check-in counter. They were smoking cigarettes and reading what appeared to be Soviet aviation magazines. (It crossed my mind that this might be their only contact with aircraft.)
In the United States when there is a flight delay, it often stems from the absence of an aircraft. However, in the USSR a much more unique system of dealing with delays has evolved. As explained to me by a kindly Russian gentleman awaiting a flight to "the oldest of Russian cities - Kiev:
"Our aviation system does not begin each day anew. If a flight is delayed by, say, six hours on Monday night, this delay is then carried forward to Tuesday morning. All aircraft and crews must rest for a prescribed period of time before they can be placed in service again." I interrupted at this point and asked if all the delays were simply accumulated over the years. "Ah, yes, as you can see, the airport is filled with people waiting and waiting and the airplanes are out there (pointing to the loading area) resting and resting." And I said to myself the crews are in small rooms reading and reading aviation magazines.
My last question I wisely kept to myself. "If what you tell me is true, what then keeps Chairman Gorbachev from going completely bonkers?"
-Jim Kimball is a Salt Lake travel consultant.