More flights to Russia's Wild East Pioneer: Air Alaska builds connections to the country's 'back door.'

March 30, 1997|By James Brooke | James Brooke,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

For most of the 20th century, Russia's Far East has been off-limits to Americans. The closest part of Russia to the United States, Russia east of Siberia, seemed also the most forbidding. Among its sites: Magadan, port of entry to Stalin's Arctic gold mines; Sakhalin Island, home base to the Soviet fighter that shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007; and Vladivostok, a city closed to all Westerners when it was home port to the Soviet Pacific fleet.

But the ice curtain has melted, and Alaska Airlines is building a network of flights between Seattle and Anchorage and Russia's back door.

Seattle to Sakhalin

It began flying there in 1991. In its latest expansion, it will offer weekly service starting on May 10 from Seattle and Anchorage to the airline's fifth destination in the region, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the provincial capital of Sakhalin Island.

In another innovation, this summer Americans holding multiple-entry visas will be able to city-hop within Russia on Alaska Airlines.

The airline, which says it makes money on its Russian routes, has built its service gradually. In 1991, summer service started to two cities: Magadan, a sister city to Anchorage, and Khabarovsk, a European-style interior city that is the industrial and commercial hub for Russia's Far East.

In 1993, to facilitate trans-Pacific tourism and trade, Russia opened a consulate in Seattle, and the United States opened a consulate in Vladivostok. That year, Alaska Airlines started flying to "Vlad," a hilly city overlooking the Pacific that once was known as Russia's San Francisco. After consolidating summer service, the airline started year-round flights in 1994.

The next year, the airline added Petropavlovsk, the largest city on Kamchatka Peninsula, which is noted for smoking volcanoes and active geyser fields.

Now, with American oil companies starting to drill on Sakhalin, the airline plans to fly to the island.

Building a flight network to Russia's Wild East has been as bumpy as its airfields. When an inaugural flight was to land three summers ago in Petropavlovsk, ground authorities told the pilot that he did not have landing rights, forcing him to turn the jet, loaded with dignitaries, back to Anchorage.

A few years earlier, when Alaska Airlines' inaugural flight landed in Magadan, there was no de-icing service at the airport, 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

"The pilot rounded up every bottle of vodka around, and sprayed it on the wings with a garden hose," recalled Douglas K. Barry, a professor at the University of Alaska Center for International Business. "That's the pioneering spirit. Now the flights are predictable as clockwork."

Russia's Far East is a vast and isolated region where 7 million people are sprinkled over an area two thirds the size of the lower 48 states.

During the summer high season, Alaska Airlines offers two flights a week to most of its destinations. After September, it falls back to once-a-week service. Year round, the airline flies McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 jets.

Competition from Aeroflot

Aeroflot, the sole competitor on the trans-Pacific routes, offers one flight a week from Seattle and Anchorage to three Russian destinations: Khabarovsk, Magadan and Vladivostok. Aeroflot, which flies Russian-made jets, charges about $900 for its round-trip economy fares, about $200 less than Alaska Airlines' comparable fares.

The Russian Far East is slowly drawing a hardy band of business and adventure travelers. To fill a growing need, two English guidebooks cover the region:

"The Russian Far East," a highly readable 320-page guide written by an American couple living in Vladivostok, Allegra and Erik Azulay. (Hippocrene Books, 1995)

"The Russian Far East: A Business Reference Guide," a bible for telephone numbers and economic data. Elisa Miller, the editor, has prepared an updated edition that will be available May 1. Available from Russian Far East Update, a Seattle-based business bulletin. Information: (206) 447-2668.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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