Airport upgrades to first class


Moscow: Soviet-era airport that was once a symbol of the country's ills is now a hopeful sign of things to come.

March 15, 2001|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DOMODEDOVO, Russia - For years, this Moscow airport provided a metaphor for much of what was wrong with the whole country. The energetic traveler optimistic enough to set off on a journey would reach his flight with spirit broken and prospects dimmed, inordinately grateful for having gotten onto a plane at all.

Flights could be delayed so long - this means days - that passengers were forced to set up housekeeping in the drafty, dark halls, washing clothes in the dirty lavatories and hanging them up as best they could. Toilets? They were pits in the floor.

At times, the snack bar had no coffee or tea, though the champagne supply could be bountiful. Foreigners were segregated, required to register at one end of the airport, then walk with their bags to the other end, where they would duck out a door and wait on the tarmac for a bus. A good-hearted traveler would often carry some food for the stray dogs wandering about on the field.

Deposited next to the plane, passengers would be made to wait in the cold at the bottom of the stairs until the crew felt ready to let them aboard.

Almost unbelievably, all this has now changed. Pitiful Domodedovo has become a metaphor for the kind of country Russia wants to be. Today, Domodedovo is a gleaming, modern airport. The astounded traveler doesn't know what is more impressive - the sparkling clean toilets (with signs that say please don't stand on the seats) or the inviting bagel cafes at either end of the terminal.

Or maybe it's the stand selling orange juice squeezed to order. Or the modern jetways. Or the long row of courteous, helpful ticket agents.

Whatever, this bounty has come courtesy of private enterprise.

Five years ago, a cargo carrier called the East Line Group began privatizing the airport. At the time, different operations were run by different agencies and no single one had the influence or interest to change anything.

Two years ago, with the airport under its control, East Line began a $90 million renovation of the passenger terminal. "We had to do it," says Sergei Rudakov, the airport director. "We had no choice."

East Line, which went into business in 1993, understood that if it wanted to survive, it had to modernize.

Domodedovo is 25 miles south of Moscow, the most distant of the city's five airports. It was built in 1964, and barely touched again until the recent overhaul.

Once, it was a busy airport, ferrying travelers to the Russian Far East and to the Central Asian republics. In 1991, Domodedovo had 16 million passengers. Last year, it had 3 million. It's still the busiest airport in Russia as measured by domestic passengers and volume of cargo.

In those earlier days, the Soviet universe revolved around Moscow, requiring frequent travel here. And subsidies had turned the national Aeroflot airline into a seedy bus service.

The brakes went on in 1992, after the Soviet Union fell apart. Soviet Russia had 1,500 airports, which handled 86 million passengers in 1991. Today, its 533 airports handle 22 million passengers, according to Yuri Baranov, an official with the Air Transport Agency.

"Now Russia is more stable," Rudakov says. "Salaries are being paid. Passengers are starting to fly again."

Domodedovo wants to get them. Overall, it has invested $300 million in the airport, building a new plant to produce meals, a cargo terminal and modernizing fuel delivery and communications. The new passenger terminal came last - the final touches are still being put in place.

And none of it was easy.

"We don't have a stable economic situation," Rudakov says. "We don't have proper rules and laws."

Not only did East Line have to fight off various mafia groups in the airport, it has had problems with the authorities as well.

Last fall, the Federal Security Service - a successor of the KGB - grounded numerous East Line cargo flights in an investigation of customs payments. Some industry observers wondered why East Line.

"It's hard to conduct a business legally in this country," Yulia Latynina, a well-known columnist, wrote at the time.

"Few can survive by doing so. Many businesses decide to bend the rules. But if a business does that, it can easily fall prey to competitors who want to squeeze it out of the market - or to members of law enforcement who want a cut themselves.

"There are a few freight forwarders in this country, and only one of them, East Line, has bought an airport, cleaned it up of bandits and invested $300 million into it."

Rudakov is circumspect about such troubles.

Slowly, he says, Russia is becoming more stable. "The laws must follow," he says.

For now, Domodedovo remains a well-kept secret. Most foreigners enter Russia through the main international airport, Sheremetyevo-2, which was built for the 1980 Olympics. There, the old rules prevail.

Rule No. 1: On arrival, run for your life, knocking over the less agile in your way. Pay no attention to the ominous, camouflage-wearing border guard at the door of the plane.

If you don't mow down everyone in your path, you'll regret it when arriving at passport control and discovering that two planes with hundreds of people have landed and all the passport officers but one have gone off to a long lunch.

Stand under the ceiling of upside-down brown coffee cans - that's what the light fixtures look like - emitting a faint, disconcerting shadow. Keep your elbows out - the old hands will try to cut in front of you.

Hours later, prepare to emerge straight into the rapacious arms of the taxi mafia, a shouting, persistent horde demanding $80 for a trip into the city, ignoring your shouts that such a sum is more than a doctor here earns in a month.

Welcome to Russia!

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