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Analysis & Opinion
09.02.09 Boozing Pilots And Bad PR
Comment by Shaun Walker

Allegations last week that an Aeroflot pilot had attempted to fly a flight to New York while blind drunk proved good fun for the Western media, but showed how badly some Russian companies handle their PR.

For us Western journalists, last week was great for comedy Russia items.

The Times revealed that Vladimir Putin has trumped Dmitry Medvedev in the expensive overindulgence of dubious musical tastes stakes. Not content with tranquilising tigers, flinging judo opponents to the ground and painting pictures, Putin continued his status as a one-man comedy news factory by having kitsch Abba tribute band Bjorn Again secretly flown into Russia to play him a high-security private gig on the shores of Lake Valdai. (Or so says the band’s manager; Putin’s spokesman has denied that the Russian prime minister was dancing along to “Money Money Money” just three days after the gas deal with Ukraine was finally signed).

But even better than this was the story of Aeroflot Flight 315 to New York in late December. According to The Moscow Times, which happened to have a reporter on the flight, the pilot was so catastrophically drunk that when he welcomed passengers aboard the flight his speech was so slurred that he was incomprehensible. The Moscow Times reporter claimed that Aeroflot representatives told passengers that it didn’t really matter if the pilot was drunk, and that the pilot himself promised to sit quietly in a corner and not touch any of the controls.

The story was, of course, gleefully picked up by all the British papers the next day, and reprinted. There’s nothing that British readers like more than a “comedy Russian drunken misdemeanour” story.

Especially given that it was the pilot’s birthday the night before, it’s not hard to believe that he might have indulged in a few shots of vodka. But to be so absolutely wasted as to sound like a jabbering idiot the next afternoon seems a bit unlikely, and it also seems hard to believe that the other pilots wouldn’t have quietly raised the alarm about their paralytic colleague. I don’t find it beyond the realm of possibility that pilots might be under the influence occasionally on provincial Russian routes, but I find it pretty surprising that someone would be allowed to fly a transatlantic flight on the country’s national carrier while blind drunk.

So perhaps the version of events that Aeroflot has circulated – that the pilot had a medical condition and may have suffered a stroke just before takeoff – is true, however implausible it might sound.

But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether the pilot was drunk or not – what is striking about this whole incident is just how terribly Aeroflot handled it.

Aeroflot hardly has the best of reputations among the British public, and the blanket coverage of this incident is likely to cause hundreds of thousands of dollars of losses over the next few years when people go to book tickets, remember this story somewhere in the back of their minds, and decide they’d be better off flying with a different airline.

After being ignored or given the cold shoulder by Aeroflot’s Moscow-based press service, the company’s London-based PR team clearly woke up, read the British papers, and choked on their breakfast. A statement was sent out saying that the press coverage had been flawed and based on false information, and that tests had clearly proved that the pilot had not been drunk.

By then, though, the damage had already been done. When The Moscow Times called the Aeroflot press service before breaking the story, they were told simply to “read about it on the Internet.” When I called the next day, I left a message and nobody called me back.

In Russia it’s normal that press secretaries find interacting with the press to be a burden. Despite the fact that about 70 percent of Russian girls in their twenties who I meet claim to have a degree in either marketing or PR, the way Russian companies interact with the press is nothing short of scandalous. In a country where PR departments are able to simply pay for positive coverage in newspapers and magazines, the idea of actually being proactive and helpful with other press representatives doesn’t seem to exist.

Of course, Aeroflot, like so many other Russian companies that have gone through expensive “rebranding” projects, still has appallingly low levels of customer service. It doesn’t just treat the press badly; it treats its customers badly, too. Over the past year, which for me has involved taking over 20 Aeroflot flights, at one time or another, I have been called a liar by the Aeroflot representative in Mumbai (I told him I had a Silver frequent flyer card, which allowed me more baggage; he didn’t believe me and wanted me to pay); I have been asked for a bribe of ?100 to give me a sly upgrade to business class; I have witnessed stewardesses take money from passengers to allow them to smoke in the toilets; and have endured numerous unsmiling and unhelpful harridans at ticket offices and check-in desks.

But aside from all this nonsense, which living in Russia teaches one to deal with without going insane, the funny thing is that Aeroflot are actually rather good. On their European routes they have some of the newest planes of any European airline, the food is edible, their business class within Europe is the best of any airline, and they are almost never delayed. Finally they’ve sorted out their Web site, and have converted fully to E-tickets, making booking and rebooking easier. And their frequent flier system is fantastically generous.

But despite all of this, what people in the West will remember when they think of Aeroflot in the future is none of this. Due to some idiotic remarks by Aeroflot representatives on the day, and subsequent bad handling of the story, Aeroflot will be the comedy Russian airline that has drunk pilots and is to be avoided at all costs. It’s a case study in how not to do PR.
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