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#14 - JRL 7133
New York Times
April 7, 2003
A Face Lift for Down-at-Heel Aeroflot

MOSCOW, April 6 - For years the word on Aeroflot was that it was not fit to transport cattle, much less people, which was untrue. It was quite fit to transport cattle.

Ask almost any Russian flier. He will say Aeroflot was the stone-faced dominatrix of the skies, a purgatory of execrable food, child-size seats, broken air-conditioning and scowling service, all doled out in dank broom-closet planes.

Aeroflot was the perfect metaphor for the sclerotic Soviet Union, and after that the chaotic, will-it-really-get-off-the-ground Russia of the 1990's, which is what makes it interesting in 2003. Russia's national airline is about to give itself a total makeover.

Like Russia itself, Aeroflot is staking a claim after a decade of malaise as a global force to be recognized, if not reckoned with.

Its 110-plane fleet will be repainted in gleaming navy, orange and silver, a stylized Russian flag unfurling curvaceously down each tail fin. Flight attendants' uniforms, now vaguely evocative of milkmen, will be replaced with snazzy designer creations.

Meals are going not just international, but la carte in upper-class cabins. Even the trays and dishes are being redesigned, from cafeteria-style rectangles to svelte ovals. The in-flight magazine has been revamped. New Airbus and Boeing jets are on the way to supplement the Tupolevs and Ilyushins that make up the bulk of the fleet.

"We are changing everything," Aeroflot's marketing director, Tatyana A. Zotova, said during a conversation at the airline's modest headquarters behind a sporting goods store on one of Moscow's clogged radial highways.

"We compete now not just with Kras Air and Sibir," two Russian domestic carriers, she said, "but with British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa."

All well and good, veteran fliers might say, but for one thing: behind the paint and designer outfits and fancy silverware, there remains Aeroflot. This is, after all, the airline whose logo is still a winged hammer and sickle; the carrier whose late-1990's advertising slogan, a not so implicit apology for its truculent service, was "We don't smile, because we're serious about making you happy."

A lot of things have already changed since the worst days of the Soviet Aeroflot.

For one thing, Aeroflot is no longer a monopoly. Now half owned by the government, it must compete with several good-size domestic carriers and scores of upstarts for business. For another, it now has an exemplary safety record: Aeroflot has not had a major fatal accident in years, despite an aging fleet.

Many of the airline's international routes, often flown by newer Western jets, are a cut above domestic flights and compete well with foreign rivals - especially because fares are often cheaper.

In August, Aeroflot's overhauled quality-assurance system won international certification. And while Swissair is history, USAir is in bankruptcy and American Airlines is all but broke, Aeroflot is making money - $74 million last year, perhaps $100 million in 2003.

Still, the makeover remains an ambitious undertaking. To some outsiders, it may seem as if Brezhnev were donning lipstick and a blond wig for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue cover.

Aeroflot officials and their image stylists say they understand the skepticism. But this, they insist, is the real thing.

"Rebranding can't be about a new livery," Tom Austin, the deputy chairman of the London firm Identica, said in a conversation here. "It has to be about absolutely everything. The brand is only going to be successful if it represents what the company does. It can't lead the company."

Ms. Zotova adds: "Changing the image is not just changing the corporate colors. Changing the image means changing our service, our attitude toward customers."

Mr. Austin's firm, among the top "rebranding" experts in the world, has been working for nearly two years to prepare Aeroflot for its debut as a pretender to top-tier airline status. He says he has had harder jobs. "We entered the project understanding all the baggage that came with this company," he said. "A lot of it is perception rather than reality."

He nevertheless has his work cut out for him. Aeroflot flies with the millstone of a widespread perception that it has been - and may still be - perhaps the worst major airline anywhere.

An article in this newspaper in 1991 called the airline "a monopoly surviving very much like the spiritless party monopoly that created it," and offered a litany of indignities: passengers forced to wait in snowstorms before glowering ticket-takers; reeking toilets; tattered, buckling carpet in the aisles; a meal service consisting of a cup of water.

Then there was the ear-splitting cabin music, featuring "scraps of lyrics underlining the bravado of flying Aeroflot: `You should embrace even the moment of death,' and `The deadly fire is waiting for you.' "

For much of the 90's, flying Aeroflot was indeed an act of bravado. In 1991 there were 36 crashes, killing 252 people. In 1994 the airline ran a spanking-new Airbus into the Siberian tundra, killing 75, after the pilot put his 15-year-old son at the controls.

Service can still be grudging. Passengers still wait in snowstorms to board planes. The bureaucracy is confounding: one flier seeking to upgrade his seat on a Vladivostok-to-Moscow flight, for example, was told that this would be possible only if he went to Moscow first to change his ticket.

This correspondent, saddled with a 31-hour layover after being bumped from a recent flight, was befuddled when other bumped passengers began boarding with ease - until another flier pointed out that the counter agent was taking bribes.

A 76-year-old Norwegian flew Aeroflot to Moscow last Christmas, and when he did not return, his family became alarmed. Two weeks later, they found him in a Moscow morgue.

He had died in midflight and Aeroflot appears to have simply dropped him off with the coroner without mentioning the unfortunate incident to his survivors.

But if the new Aeroflot is clearly a work in progress, Ms. Zotova makes it equally clear that the airline expects that progress to be swift. Its 2,500 service workers - the ones customers see - are being retrained, with the help of psychologists and role-playing games, to provide "more smiles, more sun" in their service.

The airline began serving improved economy-class meals last month. Mr. Austin said the new business-class service on Moscow-New York flights, in which passengers dine at their leisure from a menu that includes foie gras and fine wines, has drawn rave reviews.

Thus, he says, has Aeroflot again become a metaphor for its homeland. "The nation, in the last two years, has actually started to believe in itself again," he said. "It's that feeling of being proud to be a Russian in this era."

Which is why the airline is draping its tail fins in stylized Russian flags. But then what will become of the winged hammer and sickle?

"We did international research in five countries outside Russia, plus Russia," Mr. Austin said. "Business passengers, passengers of various classes, users and nonusers of Aeroflot. There was a clear statement - an overwhelming statement - that whatever else happened, the hammer and sickle had to go."

Ms. Zotova says she is not so sure. "It's difficult to say," she hedged. "For us it's not a political symbol. It's just a logo."

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