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European Times: Moscow - Russian tour company in refund offer shock

European Times: MOSCOW
THE INSTRUCTIONS are precise. We are to march blithely past hundreds of irate people, indicate that we are know-nothing Westerners by speaking no Russian, and shove our way to the front of the queue.

There we will find a young man called Viktor, whom we barely know. We are to thrust our plane tickets into his hand and he will look after us. This, says our self-appointed protector (Viktor's wife), is the only way to get on to our charter flight to Moscow, the only way out of this hot, teeming Egyptian airport. The evidence suggests she is right.

We are in Hurghada, a custom-built tourist town that perches on the Red Sea coast at the place in which this azure ocean splits into a watery V-sign, pointing upwards at Europe from the heart of the Middle East.

We are on the western edge of its left finger, a barren but beautiful landscape where - despite their economic troubles - tens of thousands of Russians this year flew in for their May holiday break to go diving and sunbathing on cut-price package deals.

We were among them. Now we are paying for it. The queue is already badly out of sorts.

So far we have been delayed for four hours, and we still haven't made it to the departure lounge. A nasty scuffle has broken out between a surly young woman and an orange-haired old lady in which several blows were struck.

Airport information display screens are in denial, and carry details only of those flights that are on time. The only proof that our plane, an Ilyushin-86, actually exists is a scrap of notepaper, with the flight number scrawled on it in ballpoint, pinned above one of the check-in desks.

We - or rather all the other passengers - queue in front of it in hope. Thanks to Viktor, we don't have to queue at all.

By now, Western tourists - and certainly consumer-wise Americans - would have been in open revolt, brandishing lawsuits, demanding refunds and bellowing at the world. Where are all the clipboard-flourishing reps? The free drinks? The snacks? The hotel vouchers?

Worse, this is our second mega-delay within a week. On the way here we waited for 16 hours, trapped between customs and passport control in a Moscow domestic airport without so much as a glass of water for sustenance.

The ingredients for revolution are there. Nothing happens. Angry though they are, these customers accept their fate with the same weariness that they greet Boris Yeltsin's latest escapade. Even our blatant queue-barging meets no complaints.

There was a brief, bright moment when a protest seemed to be on the cards after we tracked down and surrounded one of our aircraft's crew. We lobbed a couple of tough questions at this grizzled man ("Word has it that our Russian carriers are broke and cannot afford the fuel home. Is it true?") and waved our forefingers at him.

But this melted into nothing after he revealed, with the air of a ring- master introducing the lions, that he was the aircraft's captain. Russians respect pilots. They tend to applaud aircraft landings and stay in their seats until after the cockpit crew has disembarked. Suddenly everyone wanted to shake his hand.

Our fellow passengers are the remnants of the Moscow middle class (we met teachers, doctors, small businessmen and workers for international companies) who survived last summer's financial meltdown, not least because they had squirrelled away some US dollars. They are among the small percentage of Russians who seized the chance to travel abroad after the end of the Soviet Union, and have since made a habit of it.

But they are still painfully naive. To the Egyptians - pupils of the toughest, oldest school of street-level capitalism - they are as lambs to the slaughter. As we stream into the departure lounge, the stall-holders are eagerly ordering up extra supplies by mobile phone. Islamic anti-alcohol laws are forgotten here. What matters is mark-up.

This must be running into double figures. At the bar, thin local beer is selling for an exorbitant $5 (pounds 3). Queues in the duty-free store stretch through the shop, so the tourist police have bought their own supplies, which they are flogging to those who cannot be bothered to stand in line.

Passengers on our flight have responded to these adversities by going on a good-tempered drinking spree. Middle-aged women sit on the floor, taking swigs of neat gin followed up with a bite on an apple. When the gin runs out, they switch to whisky.

By the time we board - eight hours late - the floor of the hall is ankle- deep in bottles and cans. One clump of passengers is in full voice, singing songs from the Second World War. It is - you would think - a recipe for disaster, but once aboard the plane all the drinkers fall asleep.

We do complain, though. Incorrigibly Western, we write an indignant letter to our Russian tour company. And here's the oddity. They called back at once, apologising profusely, promising a refund and saying how much they valued our business. Maybe Russia is changing. But expect hold-ups along the way.

Phil Reeves