BA grounds Moscow airport

Jim Hendry and Simon Calder wave goodbye to oppresive Sheremetyevo

While all eyes have been focused on St Petersburg as it celebrates its 300th anniversary, plans have been under way to improve the lives of long-suffering travellers to Russia's capital. Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, one of the most oppressive on the planet, need be endured by British Airways' passengers for only one more month. From 1 July, BA is moving its flights to Domodedovo - further from the city centre, but with a slightly easier-to-pronounce name and dedicated train connection to make the journey faster and smoother.

The terminal that BA uses at Sheremetyevo was designed and built in a hurry for the 1980 Olympics, and has been falling apart ever since, enlivened by apparent Mafia operatives loitering in the Arrivals area.

"We are really looking forward to moving airports," says Martin George, BA's marketing director. The airline concedes that the move to the new airport is overdue: "We believe that it has much better customer facilities and provides much better access to the city."

That was not always the case. Just three years ago, Domodedovo was in aviation's stone age. Bags were weighed by hand at check-in, and there was only one English-language sign in the entire airport. This was displayed prominently in the unheated bus-shelter that doubled as the waiting lounge and stated, disturbingly, that it was the "final departure area". It certainly appeared to be curtains for the fleet of gently rusting Kras Air IL62s parked forlornly across the tarmac.

Saratov Airlines, serving the city of Saratov on the Volga, had instead a collection of Yaks; not for Russia the concept of naming aircraft after creatures that naturally take to the air. Nobody was allowed aboard the plane until the flight crew, with their prominently displayed revolvers, had gone by. Inside, the aircraft featured open luggage racks, like those on buses. At the rear, a single small oxygen cylinder was propped up at the back and marked "for passenger use". No masks dropping in front of you if cabin pressure failed, then. Business class had three advantages: seats that did not collapse when you sat in them, a wardrobe where your coat was efficiently stowed away (whether or not you wanted it to be), and a generous portion of pickled red cabbage to go with black tea - a real pick-me-up on the early morning flight.

Arriving at Saratov was also disconcerting. A wheezing bus shot across the tarmac in twice the time it would have taken to walk the short distance. Passengers were shepherded through a door in a concrete wall to find themselves in the middle of a tree-lined suburban square with no sign of bags, arrival hall, or any airport infrastructure whatsoever. Eventually they would locate a building with a luggage conveyor. Security was tight: a fur-clad grizzly bear of a woman would not let you so much as touch your bag without your producing the matching half of the luggage tag.

Modern conveniences such as the pocket calculator have taken time to reach some parts of the former Soviet Union. Upon check-in at Saratov, excess baggage calculations were rapidly and expertly carried out on an abacus. It is not known whether the same technology was used in the control tower.

Nevertheless, Saratov Airlines maintained safety and punctuality, even in thick fog; perhaps British Airways will consider a "code-share" arrangement to transfer passengers from the London flight to Saratov Airlines as seamlessly as BA's new location in Moscow allows.

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