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Trip Report

Unless you are a real sucker for boring reading, skip this post.


I recently took a trip to Armenia, solely for the purpose of vacation. I picked Armenia shortly after RyanAir announced it was going to fly to Morocco and I suddenly realized that nearly every place I’d visited in Europe, save for Kyiv, was on the route map of either RyanAir, easyJet, or skyEurope. Consequently all of the destinations were tourist oriented.

I started eyeing the Northwest Airlines route map and started tossing around the idea of visiting either Georgia or Armenia. Consulting the SkyTeam timetable I realized it was hard to get to either place—with non-daily service by Czech Airlines and Air France—or, worse yet, their partners. Once Aeroflot joined SkyTeam the possibilities got better. With the addition of Aeroflot’s hub in Moscow not only was Armenia and Georgia better connected, but the service was daily.

I cannot tell you for sure how I landed on going to Armenia, but I did, and so back in July after pricing tickets (in excess of €700) I called WorldPerks to get award tickets to Yerevan (EVN) from Frankfurt, Germany. Much to my great surprise, after the agent seriously informed me that there were no partners providing nonstop service from Frankfurt to Yerevan, I was offered flights to and from Yerevan on my preferred dates—even having a choice. Using Aeroflot, going by way of Moscow I could leave at 14:05 and arrive at 03:20 +1, or I could leave at 23:55 and arrive at 14:50 +1.

Much to the agent’s surprise I opted to leave at 23:55, because I felt that arriving in an unfamiliar foreign country when it was dark out was an invitation for trouble. The 14:50 arrival meant that I would be able to see what was going on, with the added benefit that very few flights arrive and depart EVN in the afternoon. I also opted for the mid-afternoon departure for my return to Germany because I did not want to have to try and find the airport late at night.

My outbound to EVN started on September 15, and my return was September 25, both connecting in Moscow. I live a 2.5 hour train ride away from the Frankfurt airport. I spent my Friday packing and cleaning the before catching a late InterCityExpress to the airport.

Aeroflot flies out of Frankfurt’s Terminal 1. I found the check-in desks easily, and using the Business Check-In desk, I got my boarding pass for the flight, but not my connecting one—those are, apparently, only issued in Moscow. The check-in agents were unfamiliar with Armenian e-Visas and informed me that I would have to pay $30 for a visa upon arrival.

FRA's flight status board15 September 2006
SU 110: FRA-SVO
Scheduled: 23:55-05:15 +1
A320-200, Seat 7F
Gate B45

The specific gate was kept a secret until 22:40, when it was announced to be departing from B45. There were no announcements about the flight being delayed, despite the missing plane, which eventually arrived and was boarded by the cleaning crew at 23:40. The cleaners were done and boarding commenced at midnight, with the door closing a scant 12 minutes later. The flight, in coach, was about 75-80% full. For the record, there are five rows of business class (2 seats, US domestic first class style, on each side of the aisle), and seat 7F was in the second row of coach on the A320. The over-wing exit rows were rows 9 and 10.

The flight pushed back at 12:20 and we took off at 12:33.

This flight was my worst nightmare for a red-eye: as scheduled the flight was 3 hours and 20 minutes, gate to gate, leaving at midnight and arriving at the toasty hour of 5:15, if we were on schedule, but we were already delayed 25 minutes, and since I had a massive five hour and thirty-five minute layover in Moscow, any delay in arrival was not going to bother me.

Shortly after take-off immigration cards were handed out (I declined since I was transiting without visa), and a drink service was started. Passengers in coach were kept lit up, while I noticed that beyond the bulkhead (for the record, solid, from ceiling to floor, curtain in the aisle), business class was in the dark. Drink service consisted of full cans of beverages, I opted for Pepsi. No ice was available.

The seats on the plane were blue leather and, all things considered, comfortable. I had a set of three seats to myself and, upon occasion, would avail myself of the opportunity to lie down and sleep. I had undertaken a brief nap when I woke up to the cart being pushed right past my head. Dinner service was beginning.

Aeroflot Chicken DinnerFor dinner we had two choices: Chicken or Fish.

Unwisely I chose chicken.

The meal was certainly complete. In the hot dish I found a bland hunk of chicken, accompanied by a bland lump of rice (all white), plus some veggies. Elsewhere on the tray was a small salad with salmon, a plastic wrapped roll, a plastic wrapped slice of dark bread, a processed cheese wedge, butter, a chocolate treat thingy, a moist towel, and a plastic wrapped napkin, knife, fork, spoon, and other condiments. There was also a cup for coffee or tea, which was offered after the meal.

It was about this time that it suddenly dawned on me that Aeroflot’s signature color is orange. The seats had orange “Aeroflot” headrests attached to them, the seatbelts were a vivid orange, and the air sickness bag was orange, as were the plastic knife, fork, and spoon accompanying the meal. Heck, even the stripe going around their aircraft, the strip that looks like it is part of the red flag on the tail, is actually orange. Seriously—I had presumed that it was red until that moment, when I pulled out the in-flight magazine and looked at the available photos of aircraft in the back—there is either a smooth or abrupt change of color near the tail—I couldn’t decide which, but it surprised me.

I will give many props to Aeroflot for serving a meal onboard a 3:20 gate-to-gate red-eye flight. I cannot think of a single coach class flight within the United States of that duration that would have a meal today. The last time I took a flight that was at least that long in coach, I flew DTW-YVR and got a free drink plus the opportunity to buy a snack.

However, I strongly urge caution to anybody considering using the Aeroflot knife, fork, or spoon. They seem to have found the world’s worst molds, molds that include numerous sharp and uncomfortable edges, right where one expects to hold the aforementioned items.

Anyhow, once dinner was over, I lay back down across my three seats for a brief nap. At 2:55, Frankfurt time, the pilot came on, spoke a few words in Russian and then in English announced that we were starting to descend, it was 3°C in Moscow, and that we would be on the ground in 20 minutes. Helpfully he added, “May I remind you the difference between Frankfurt and Moscow is plus two.” Therefore it was 4:55 and the 3:20 minute gate-to-gate flight was going to be over way too quickly for my comfort.

Sure enough, we touched down at 5:17 to applause from the back of the planet. I spotted an Air France jet at a gate, as well as a Vaso Airlines IL-86, before parking at a remote stand at 5:22. The doors opened five minutes later and we disembarked down the stairs to two awaiting buses. I nearly had a Gerald Ford moment on the stairs.

Aeroflot Boarding PassAfter the bus filled up, we were driven to the terminal where we waited for a door to be opened, before everybody got off the bus and headed to immigration. I followed the signs up the stairs to the transfer desk where I got my connecting boarding pass to EVN (sequence number 001), had my passport briefly inspected, and was then let into the infamous Moscow Sheremetyevo Terminal 2.

Killing Time

I had something like four and a half hours before the “boarding time” for my connecting flight arrived.

I wandered around a bit before finding the upstairs level where I found the Taj Mahal café, one of a few select places that would sell me coffee using dollars or euros—helpful since I didn’t have any rubles and had not noticed any exchange desks in that part of the airport. I paid 3€ for a small espresso, which I considered money well spent since it got me a table overlooking the entrance to a gate and allowed for plenty of people watching from a relatively comfortable spot.

Aeroflot is an interesting beast. I remember reading on the SkyTeam website (but cannot find right now), that Russia does not allow eticketing, which is why I had a dreaded paper ticket for this journey. The other thing I find fascinating about Aeroflot is that according to the SkyTeam Fact Sheet on the website, Aeroflot has only 500,000 people enrolled in its frequent flier program, Aeroflot Bonus. This compares to 38 million at Delta, 31.6 at Northwest, and 2.1 with Alitalia. The only program smaller than Aeroflot Bonus is Czech’s OK Plus which has 160,000 members.

Anyhow, that killed about an hour. I killed the remaining time looking at the remarkable airport which is, outside of security, 90% duty free retail and 10% seating. I didn’t find anything to buy and eventually I made my way through the security checkpoint for gates 3-5. SU591 to Hong Kong was leaving from gate 5 at 10, boarding for my flight was scheduled for 10:10.

I watched the flight to Hong Kong push back and then I boarded my flight to Yerevan when boarding commenced at 10:22

Gate 4: SU 193 to Yerevan16 September 2006
SU 193: SVO-EVN
Scheduled: 10:50-14:50
TU-154M, Seat 8A
Gate 4

This was my first time onboard a TU-154M. For those of you unfamiliar with the plane, it is roughly a 727—a trijet with a slightly smaller dimensions. I passed through the business cabin, which had four rows on the left side and three rows on the right. If you’re seated in business on an Aeroflot TU-154M, may I suggest the last row on the right side? You have and emergency exit in front of you thus leaving you relatively unlimited legroom.

Unlike the legroom in coach row 8: My backpack, which was easily swallowed up by the A320’s overhead compartment, was not going to make in this plane’s overhead bin, so I stuffed it under the seat in front of me, and well into my leg room. With my legroom reduced to an uncomfortable zero, I was looking forward to the rest of my 3 hour flight to Yerevan (there is a one hour difference between Moscow and Armenia).

It was at that moment I realized that the seat in front of me was, well, in my face. It seems that the TU-154M’s seat pitch is something the folks at RyanAir should not be informed about, for were they to discover the seat pitch on this plane, they would realize they could fit a few more seats on their planes. I hoped that seat 7A would remain empty, but alas, it did not, and I resigned myself to having seat-in-face for a long spell.

To help pass the remaining ground time I watched a Delta flight arrive at the gate where the flight to Hong Kong had just departed. It was a 767, ship N191DN. If the Delta planes turn around and return to the cities from where they came, then this plane came from Atlanta. Regardless, it was going to be DL47 to Atlanta, departing at 12:30.

Once that excitement was over, I looked around the cabin. The plane had three cabins: the aforementioned business cabin, then a small coach cabin, which was followed by the galley, and after the galley was a larger coach cabin. The galley was just forward of the wing. Based on my outbound and return observations, the areas ahead of the galley are trimmed in real wood, while the back cabin is not.

I noticed at 11:54 that the jet-way was pulled back, so I presumed that the door was shut, and moments later, we pushed back. Flight time was announced to be 2:25. It was a slow taxi and I watched an IL-86 take off, as well as other planes land. We turned onto the runway at 12:14 and launched a minute later. It must be standard procedure on Aeroflot, for every time we turned onto the runway, an announcement was made reminding us to make sure our tray tables were up, seatbelts fastened, and electronics turned off.

Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendants came through the cabin distributing a really cool little backpack to the kids on the plane. I know this because sitting next to me was one of these lucky kids. The backpack had crayons, a coloring book, a game (Magnetic Chutes and Ladders), a puzzle, something that looked like a pair of enormous (for kids) socks, as well as a scarf like thing. Naturally the backpack was orange and I wished I was young enough to qualify for one.

Aeroflot BreakfastUpon noticing the drink cart appear in the aisle, I put down my tray table which rested comfortably on my stomach. I will be the first to admit that I am not a slender individual; however, short of being a wafer thin child, I do not think it is possible for anybody to put down the tray table and not have it land squarely on their body.

After the drink service (cups of drinks, no cans), we were offered breakfast. Breakfast came in an orange plastic container, which when opened contained a small peach yogurt, cheese wedge, butter, roll, dark bread slice, two slices of pepper ham, one slice plain ham, and a roll with raisins.

TU 154MOnce the breakfast containers were collected, I stood up and annoyed the flight attendant in business class by using the business class toilet. I had noticed others going forward so I had assumed that the toilet for people in the first coach cabin was the forward lavatory. I got a short lecture after emerging from the toilet and I promised never to do it again. I noticed that in general, she appeared to be easily annoyed and slightly unreasonable in her demands, unwilling to wait for people to sit down whenever she had to make a dash from the galley to the front of the plane or vice-versa. Her colleague, however, was much nicer and took my photo standing in the second cabin thus proving for anybody in doubt that I have ridden in an Aeroflot TU-154M!

Unfortunately the clouds set in and the view out my window was rather limited so I read my Lonely Planet guidebook and reviewed my notes for the upcoming adventure.

At 1:12 I noticed that the engines were cut and that we started descending. A few minutes later the fasten seatbelt sign was turned on and it was announced that we would be landing in 25 minutes. A nuclear power plant appeared outside my window and moments later we touched down at 2:33 and proceed to follow a truck to our gate—out the window Mt. Ararat dominated my view. We parked at 2:38, next to an Armavia A319, and shortly thereafter we deplaned via stairs on at 1L and 2L. I chose to go forward. At the bottom of the stairs two buses waited to collect everybody onboard.

A few minutes later, we drove off to the brand new arrivals facility: so new you could smell the paint—so new, that I think it was only the third day that the facility had been in use.

Being somewhat aggressive, I was toward the front of the pack, having already acquired an Armenian eVisa. The immigration officials were rather excited to see us and, as I recall, I was eagerly directed to booth 12 on the far right side of the arrivals zone.

My passport was stamped and I was through in no time, thus leading to the most perplexing mistake of my arrivals. I left the immigration booth and was forced to walk through a large duty free shop. Now I was looking for an exchange booth, but I did not see one. I walked through the baggage claim, but since I hadn’t checked anything, I kept going. I walked right through customs, past the taxi stand, and into the arrivals hall.

At no time did I see a currency exchange booth, so I stepped to the information desk and was informed that I had missed it, and that to get currency, I would have to go to the departures level and find an exchange desk there. However, my driver was right there and I was on the road to Kapan, without any dram. My worst nightmare—fortunately my friend in Kapan could assist me, but I sure want to know, how on earth did I miss that currency exchange booth?

Life would move on—I was in Armenia and between the Zvartnots International Airport and Kapan there were miles of potholes, cows in the road, switchbacks, and one heck of a fantastic Khoravadz (BBQ) meal. Now only if I knew either Armenian or Russian…

If you wish, you can read about my adventures in Armenia:

Or if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can read everything I’ve written related to this trip, including more than the points listed above by checking out “Armenia.”

The complete set of photos can be found on my Flicker Armenia Set, or you can see a smaller set by looking at the “Armenia Best of” set.

Zvartnots AirportBut if you don’t want to read all of that crap because you only care about airplanes, you can read the shorter version of my trip back, which started with a 2 hour taxi ride from Vanadzor to Zvartnots. I took the taxi in order to stop by the Museum of the Armenian Alphabet, arriving at the airport well over three hours in advance of my scheduled flight. I’d allotted a lot of extra time because I was paranoid—I figured if something went wrong I wanted as much time as possible to make sure I got to the airport in time to catch my flight, which I did.

My first stop at the airport was to find out where to pay my 10,000 dram departure tax—something that I knew I had to pay but had missed any signs telling me where to pay said fee. I had to pay it at the exchange booth and was handed a small piece of paper that had both Armenian and English on it. One cannot help but feel that they need to hire somebody to proofread their documents, for one half of the document was labeled “The Passanger’s Receipt.”

Check in for my flight started at 13:05 and I was the first to check-in, handing over my ticket and my “Air Passanger Exit Duty Receipt.” Somehow my reserved seat 8A turned in to reserved seat 12A, which meant I was in the second row of the second coach cabin. My backpack was tagged as acceptable hand luggage, even though I knew it wouldn’t fit in the overhead bin, nor would it really fit under the seat in front of me. Ultimately check-in was quick and painless, something I noticed that for later arrivals it was not. I was left with much time to kill, time that expanded as the scheduled 16:05 departure suddenly turned into a delayed 17:00 departure. I was not especially worried as I had a 3 hour and 50 minute scheduled layover.

With such a vast expanse of time to kill, I ended up wandering around the terminal admiring everything it had to admire, including an amusing model of the new terminal at Stage III build-out: parked at two of the six gates were 747s. I was also sufficiently bored that I bothered to read the customs regulations for Armenia, conveniently posted on the wall just outside of the gate area. Previous travelers had marked up the poster correcting the various English mistakes, plus clarifying some rather ambiguous points about customs procedures. My inner proof-reader was amused.

Waiting Area, gates 1-2-3-4Despite the delayed departure, I decided to clear customs at 15:15, and at the exit immigration booth they actually wanted to see my onward ticket from Moscow. Never before have I ever had an immigration official interested in connecting tickets or boarding passes—in my case they usually don’t even want to look at the boarding pass. Consequently I had to dig out the connecting ticket, before proceeding through security and directly into the duty free shop.

Gate 4, the flight to Moscow was before the shop, but seating, and air conditioning, could only be found beyond the shop, so I wandered through and sat down for a spell. Strangely, the Armenians seem to have posted a number of AIDS awareness posters in the departures lounge at the airport. I could not recall having seen any of these posters elsewhere in Armenia—and since the posters were in Armenian we were left wondering why a pregnant woman was shown in the red “do not do” section of the poster.

Russian Sunset25 September 2006
SU 194: EVN-SVO
Scheduled: 16:05-17:55
Delayed departure scheduled at 17:00
TU-154M, Seat 12A
Gate 4

They finally started letting us into a small holding cell at 16:40, and held us in this room for 10 minutes until they started allowing groups of people on the plane. Somehow, despite being completely full, we pushed back at 17:05 and taxied past the terminal building under construction until we got to the runway, at which point we took off.

Sheremetyevo International AirportShortly after takeoff we were served a lunch, again in one of the orange boxes. I would describe it here but I had misplaced my pen and my photograph of said meal was rather fuzzy. I do remember that it had an Aeroflot candy bar. The sky was cloudy so I wasn’t really able to look out the window too much, although I did manage to get a couple of great photos of clouds and the sun starting to set, as well as an aerial photo of the Moscow Sheremetyevo airport.

We landed at 19:10, Moscow Time, using half the runway—we made a rather sharp turn off the runway and parked at gate 15 a few minutes later. I was in the terminal, with my connecting boarding pass (sequence number 005) at 7:30.

I wandered around the duty free shops and bought a bottle of Sprite for 1€, which was the extent of my activities until I camped out in front of the area for gates 14-16, since the flight to Frankfurt was leaving from gate 16. They finally started allowing us in to the gate area at 8:25—I promptly went through security and sat down to watch the plane, noticing at 20:30 that the cleaners had just left the plane. At 8:50 I watched the pilots do their walk around, and at 9:07 boarding commenced.

A319-10025 September 2006
SU 194: SVO-FRA
Scheduled: 21:45-22:55
A319-100, Seat 7A
Gate 16

As soon as I sat down I realized something was wrong. I had been under the distinct impression that tonight’s flight was going to be on an A320, but it was an A319. I realized this almost right away because the over-wing emergency exit was (a) just one row; and (b) in row 8. I had no recline, even though I was in the second row of coach.

The doors shut early and the safety announcement started at 21:34. We pushed back at 21:36. A few minutes later, at 21:47 we turned onto the runway, were treated to the previously described last second safety reminders. Three minutes later we were in the air, for a 3:10 flight.

Aeroflot Fish DinnerAt 22:15 we had a beverage service, which was followed a short time later by dinner options of either fish or beef. I again chose poorly, this time choosing fish. The fish was accompanied by potato balls, a cheese salad, a roll, a slice of dark bread, butter, cheese wedge, and an Aeroflot candy bar. I opted for a cup of tea to close out my meal.

The plane hit some light turbulence at 23:35, which, five minutes later, was followed by the seatbelt sign. About half an hour after that the pilot announced that we would be landing in 25 minutes, at 22:35 (Frankfurt Time).

The Exit Door light, which was right over my shoulder, turned on at 22:31, and three minutes later we were on the ground. Six minutes later, we were parked at a gate. Passports were briefly checked as we deplaned and I went from plane to train platform in 12 minutes, giving me a comfortable 7 minute wait for the 23:02 S-Bahn to the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof and my hotel for the night.

Impressions

Overall I have to say that I was impressed with Aeroflot. Maybe it speaks more to the current standards of US carriers, but on flights of comparable length in the US, I don’t think one would get a choice of hot meals in coach—if you get a meal at all. The Airbus aircraft were absolutely fine—I had no qualms riding on them. I didn’t even have any safety issues with the TU-154Ms. My complaints with the TU-154Ms lie with the limited legroom. I don’t think seat pitch accurately captures the lack of leg room on this plane as the seats in coach are rather thick—it’s been over a week since I’ve ridden on the plane, but I would say the seats were four inches thick, if not more. I could be wrong on this, so if anybody actually knows, I am sure others would like to know.

Moscow’s Terminal 2 is a rather dark facility which after immigration but before security is mostly duty free shops. It desperately needs more places to sit down for people who are not yet ready to go through security. They should also put in a currency exchange booth somewhere after immigration but before security—I would have been inclined to buy a bite to eat on my way to Armenia at one of the less expensive cafes, but they only took rubles and I only had dollars and euros—so that was a definite issue (It is entirely possible that I missed such a facility, so I could be corrected on this point).

Crossposted to FlyerTalk.

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