Friday, July 5, 2013

Aeroflot – Red-Orange Outfits, Strange Film Choices and Affirmative Action

As we were planning this vacation, I received the prospect of flying to Russia on Aeroflot with a 90:10 blend of excitement and nervousness.  On the one hand, I was pretty pumped to check out a new airline I’d never flown before, and having been an air show geek as a kid, I remember Aeroflot as a cold war equivalent of Air Canada.  Only I remember thinking that Aeroflot’s stewardesses, while highly skilled and coached to work as a highly coordinated unit, just didn’t have the same intangibles that our Canadian stewardesses had <translation note: that’s a Canadian hockey joke for you non-Canadian readers…>.

But on the other hand, Aeroflot doesn’t exactly get the same kind of positive press that, say, Singapore Airlines, or Emirates does.  There was another itinerary on SAS that wasn’t very different in terms of scheduling or price, and seeing as how I love all things Scandinavian, I was tempted to go with the Swedes.  In the end however, Aeroflot got the nod, so away we went.

One of the first things you notice with Aeroflot is the retention of their Soviet-era logo: A winged hammer-and-sickle.  

It’s there on the sign behind their check-out desk. It’s on the left breast of all the outfits.  It’s even embroidered around the cuffs of the sleeves of their blazers.  I enjoyed that.  The winged hammer-and-sickle is a great piece of graphic design, and, quite frankly, it just fits somehow.  I’ll grant that this may mark me out as an aging relic of a time when communism still seemed like it might actually be a good idea, but seeing that symbol of good-ol’ Soviet technological might, and the looming threat that it used to represent helped set my mind at ease regarding the thought of flying with an airline regulated by a government that is just a tad on the corrupt side.  If there is one area where autocratic control might still be a good idea, airline regulation might be it.

The throwback feel continues at boarding, as the 767 we flew the transatlantic leg on seemed to have missed a skipped a few upgrade cycles.  CRT monitors in the aisles for entertainment.  Overhead bins that weren’t really capable of handling the jumbo-rollerbags that many people travel with these days.  Weathered blue & orange leather, reminiscent of the old CP Air colour scheme. 

Keeping with the cold war theme, Aeroflot dresses their stewardesses in brilliant red-orange, with the winged hammer-and-sickle embroidered in gold, leaving you with the idea that they wrap their flight crews up in leftover USSR flags that they didn’t have any other use for anymore.  All of the stewardesses we saw were tall, leggy, blond women, with one exception, who I assume must have been the affirmative action brunette hire.

Sorry Angelina, blondes only...

The flight was actually quite smooth, and I slept for the first couple of hours, waking up just as the in-flight programming really hit its stride.  And the in-flight programming lineup was interesting to say the least:

The first film they put on was an amazing Russian film from the 1960s called “A Lively Voyage.”  The description in the in-flight magazine is as follows:

"A comedy about Lions and Tigers running around a cruise ship full of passengers"

It’s like “Bedtime for Bonzo” had an ecstasy-fueled threesome with “The Love Boat” and “Life of Pi.”  Seriously, I can’t recommend this movie highly enough.  It’s amazing.  The title has to be a mistranslation though, as for the life of me, I can't find it anywhere on IMDB...

The next film up was “Singing in the Rain,” dubbed into Russian, because apparently the media procurement budget for Aeroflot got cut to zero sometime in the early 70s.

After that, it was cartoon time – Soviet cartoon time.

There is something about Eastern European children’s stories that really speak to me.  They tend to have a touch of darkness about them that is often missing from the too-pleasant and too-sunny Western versions.

The best of the bunch was called “Geese and Swans.”  It’s a Hansel & Gretel kind of story, where two parents leave their children at their farm as they go to the market, telling the older daughter to watch out for her younger brother.  The older daughter, still being a young girl, predictably leaves her brother on the lawn so that she can go play with her friends.  While the daughter, Maria, frolics with her friends, a flock of evil geese and swans swoops down and kidnaps her brother, carrying him off into the dark woods.  Seeing her brother carried off, Maria’s exact quote is “This is all my doing, so it is up to me to put it right.”  Look at those Soviets, teaching their kids personal accountability!

Suffice to say, the evil waterfowl are in the employ of an evil forest witch who eats little boys (Baba Yaga perhaps?), and as Maria travels through the forest, she helps other forest denizens she meets along the way, earning their help as allies and in the end, she retrieves her brother and gets him home before her parents return from the market (hey, even Soviet fairy tales aren't that dark).

After getting to Moscow and missing our connection, Liz and I both got upgraded to business class for our flight to St Petersburg.  Business class is always sweet, but flying business class on a formerly Soviet airline is especially sweet because of all the Orwell one-liners you suddenly have at your disposal.  We decided that we weren’t quite flying Oligarch Class, since oligarchs probably own their own planes, but despite our shlubby tourist clothes, we did our best to soak in the baleful stares of the hapless serfs, boarding miserably into coach while we enjoyed our pre-takeoff glasses of champagne.

I don’t think anybody is ever going to mistake Aeroflot for Etihad, or Cathay Pacific, but one flight delay aside, I’ve got to give them a lot of credit for getting us to St Petersburg in comfort, style, and leaving us with a new appreciation for Russian cinema, and social challenges faced by Russia’s brunette community.

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