4 September 2023

Flying home for Christmas … eventually : 1995 : Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow

 “Ground staff have told me our plane is four inches too close to the gate,” the pilot announced in a tone midway between bewilderment and exasperation. “I have had to order a tow truck which will attach to the aircraft to pull it backwards, so I apologise that it will be some time before we can all disembark.”

‘Some time’ turned out to be more than an hour, during which all us passengers could do was wriggle in our seats and wait it out. The British Airways flight from London had passed uneventfully until then. However, once in airspace beyond the former Berlin Wall, absolutely anything could happen … and often did. Foreigners’ time and money proved irresistible commodities dangling like low fruit on a tree labelled ‘FLEECE ME’ that offered easy pickings for ‘communist’ opportunists who post-Glasnost had metamorphosed into ‘biznessmen’.

Welcome to Moscow! If it looks like a metropolis, is busy like a metropolis and makes the noise of a metropolis, then it must be a … but looks are deceiving. Moscow resembled one of those Wild West film sets constructed years ago in the deserts of Spain and Italy where convincing Main Street facades hide the vacuum of an absent third dimension. Some apparatchik in the Kremlin’s Department for Urban Construction must have been ordered by their Great Leader to build Russian cities just like ones he had viewed in ‘King Kong’, without either of them having ever set foot inside an American skyscraper … or airport. From the outside, everything might look normal, but nothing inside actually functioned correctly.

British Airways flights into Moscow transported a mix of world weary ‘road warriors’ who destressed holdups like this by finalising PowerPoint presentations on their laptops, and rich Russians who could afford the luxury of avoiding the discomfort and safety record of their national airline. Whilst the former passengers travelled light, all the better to avoid border guard interrogations, the latter boarded with clutches of overflowing shopping bags stamped with logos of the most expensive shops in Knightsbridge and Bond Street. Cabin crew had apparently given up informing such ‘frequent oligarch flyers’ that their voluminous purchases should be packed into a suitcase for storage in an overhead locker. Those unlucky enough to be seated next to a fur-coat clad, Gucci/Prada clotheshorse made you feel like an impoverished Bob Cratchit half-hidden at the back of a seasonal Harrods shopwindow display.

Without hesitation, Sheremetyevo is the worst airport I have ever encountered. Even Mombasa’s departure ‘lounge’, where you sit cross-legged on hot tarmac under an open canopy, comes a distant second place. During my years shuffling between radio stations owned by Metromedia International Inc at eight locations within five countries, I took an average two flights per week, routed through various European airports, but was required to visit Moscow more frequently than other destinations. Unfortunately. Most airports at least attempt to ensure their travellers’ journeys are as frictionless as possible, whereas Sheremetyevo’s apparent priority objective dreamt up within some arcane Five Year Plan was to inflict as much pain as possible on its customers.

I soon realised that around half a day had to be anticipated just to navigate the few hundred metres between deboarding the plane and the airport exit … on a good day! There were no queues organised for passengers to pass through the twin hurdles of passport control and customs checks, merely a sea of hundreds of people tightly packed into an open concourse, all jostling to exit. Some Russians simply pushed through the crowd to the front. Nobody chastised them. In Russia, those who had the power used it … ruthlessly. Nobody said a word. We all stood in silence, crushed by those around us, some smelling of vodka or BO. Russians pretended you did not exist as they trod on your foot or elbowed you out the way. Sometimes it could take three hours to be pushed along to the front.

To keep my claustrophobia at bay whilst trapped in this sea of inhumanity, I would stare upwards at the arrival hall’s high ceiling. It offered no comfort. The entire roof space had been covered with thousands of identical sliced aluminium tubes to create a vast honeycomb pattern. However, any artistic pleasure from this aesthetic was overshadowed by my observation that several of the tubes were missing. This discovery created a further phobia that, were another of those metal tubes to fall from that significant height onto the waiting crowd, its acceleration would result in serious injury for anyone below. Life in Russia was precarious at the ‘best’ of times, but death by sub-standard Russian glue smeared onto an airport ceiling was not what I wanted on my Death Certificate.

Eventually exiting the terminal building, an awaiting Metromedia driver would always enquire why it had taken me so long to appear, as if he imagined I must have been dawdling for hours in the Duty Free or supping cocktails in the airport bar. If only! All I wanted was to be somewhere where I was not surrounded by an impatient crowd who you feared might shoot you dead if you so much as acknowledged their presence or made eye contact. This ‘airport run’ was the only guaranteed occasion that Metromedia would provide me with a driver because there existed no navigable public transport or marked taxis to travel the 29km route to the city centre, and aggressive freelance drivers accosting travellers outside the terminal were, at best, likely to rob you or, at worst, dump your body in a ditch.

My visits to Moscow would last weeks or months at a time. Every day was stressful, not because of my work, but because the environment was so dangerous and unpredictable. One of my American work colleagues was arrested on a Moscow street and thrown in jail overnight for doing … nothing. Drivers were randomly stopped by uniformed men, often pretending to be officials in cars equipped with flashing blue lights, in order to extract bribes or on-the-spot ‘fines’. Even walking along a city street was unsafe because some vehicles used the pavement to accelerate around traffic jams or red traffic lights. Laws, if they existed at all, were routinely flouted with impunity.

In 1995, I was determined to reach home by Christmas, having booked a British Airways flight from Moscow to London for the morning of 20th December. At the airport, finding it was delayed, I sat in the departure lounge’s transparent plastic walled ‘waiting room’ and plugged my laptop into the power socket to finish some last-minute work tasks. Within minutes, a security guard entered the room, admonished me aggressively for stealing electricity and confiscated my UK/Russia plug adapter. You learnt to bite your tongue in these regular confrontations where exertion of ‘power’ demonstrated neither logic nor reason. Eventually the flight was called, so we handed in our handwritten exit visa forms and walked to the gate. Hours passed. No plane appeared. We were herded to the bar area where we were offered one free drink.

Many more hours passed. By now, it was dark outside and snowing. A British Airways person appeared and finally admitted that the flight had been cancelled for reasons unknown. We were to stay overnight in a hotel and board a replacement flight the following morning. However, before then, three challenges remained. We were herded to a baggage area where we were confronted with a mountain of suitcases from which we had to identify and recover our luggage without assistance or checks. Then we had to wait at immigration control where the day’s exit stamp in our passport had to be identified and cancelled with, you guessed it, a further rubber stamp over the top. Finally, we were confronted with a table on which a cardboard box had been placed, in which had been dumped all our exit visa forms. Without assistance, passengers had to sift through this pile of papers to find their own document to take it back for reuse tomorrow. Only then could we exit the airport.

I had no understanding of where we were meant to be going. I simply followed the person in front of me out of the terminal where I could see a long line of people dragging suitcases, snaking along an uphill pathway in the pitch black, the snow and the minus fifteen temperature. It was a ten-minute trudge until we reached the assigned hotel where, being British, we queued politely at the reception desk for room keys. By now, it was eleven at night and we had wasted twelve hours at the airport, where we had only been offered one drink each. I rang room service and ordered a pizza from the menu which I was told would arrive within thirty minutes. It did not. I rang room service again, only to be told that my order had not been fulfilled because British Airways passengers were not entitled to hotel food. By then, I had discovered that neither were we allowed to make international phone calls from the room’s phone, so our loved ones would have no idea why we had not already arrived home. Gggggggrrrrrrrr! At midnight, tired and hungry, I fell into bed in my clothes as it required too much effort to open and partially unpack my suitcase.

The following morning, we were finally allowed to eat for free from the hotel breakfast buffet bar. In the light of day, we all looked crumpled and exhausted by the interminable wait for a flight that had yet to materialise. Assembled together in the lobby, we were eventually led back out into the snow to snake our way down the narrow pathway to the airport, dragging our luggage. Humiliatingly, we had to repeat all the airport processing formalities already endured the previous day: check-in, luggage weighing, passport control, submission of yesterday’s visa form and customs checks. Would the plane even arrive as promised? Some of us voiced fears that an airport ‘Groundhog Day’ might strand us here through the holidays. Thankfully, the promised plane arrived at the gate, we applauded it with relief and, by the time we were seated on board, it felt as if we were half-way to British firmament. There was much relief when we finally arrived at Heathrow in time for Christmas.

Of the many times I passed through Moscow airport, there was only one occasion that could be called positive. I had coincidentally been booked onto the same incoming flight as an American senior Metromedia executive. The corporate travel department must have assumed that we both warranted some kind of ‘VIP’ service, despite me being a lowly European contractor. Immediately after exiting the plane at Sheremetyevo, we found officials holding up cards with each of our names who took us aside from the other passengers. Led along a separate corridor, we were taken to a large empty room where we were told to sit on huge throne-like chairs around its perimeter. Each of our flight’s handful of VIP’s was assigned an official who took our passport and completed entry visa. After only ten minutes, he returned with our suitcases and our passport that had been stamped appropriately without us even having been interviewed. As we were whisked away swiftly to the terminal exit, I tried to calculate how many dozen occasions I had wasted an additional two or three hours in the midst of the madding crowd just to escape this airport. How the other one percent lives!

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