In transit in Tashkent

The eccentric airways of the former USSR.
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The Independent Travel
Want a plane ticket to Asia at a silly price? How about Gatwick to Karachi for pounds 276 return, including all taxes; Heathrow to Bangkok and back for pounds 360; or Birmingham to Delhi for pounds 370? No problem, so long as you don't mind changing planes in the former USSR.

Impoverished transatlantic commuters all know the daily Air India Heathrow to New York flight; however intense the competition from other carriers, the Indian carrier usually has the best value combined with flexibility. However, when the same 747 flies on to India, it suddenly becomes a luxurious and relatively expensive route. It offers, after all, a non-stop daily service instead of the chance to transit in Baku, Tashkent, or Ashkhabad. In these three cities, and others, the socialist aeronautical tradition of earning foreign currency transporting adventurous travellers from Europe to East Asia, in competition with the more obvious direct routes, lives on. Uzbekistan Airways is so uninterested in selling Tashkent that they charge travellers who stop there about pounds 600, whereas those who continue to Delhi or Beijing pay only pounds 350. Perhaps the managers are aware of the struggle Air Ukraine has in selling its home base of Kiev and have decided to abandoned any hope of promoting theirs.

Some timetable-memorising travellers even book these sorts of flights in the hope of a delay; when there was a weekly service to Beijing, missing the connection in Tashkent meant a free holiday for this period in Uzbekistan. Yet we must not over-mock Uzbekistan Airways. Connoisseurs of airline eccentricity will remember the many attempts that Tajik Air made to fly via Dushanbe to Delhi. They were not nicknamed Tragicair without reason. Money was collected and tickets issued, but very few passengers progressed beyond Heathrow.

Aeroflot does make some effort to sell Moscow in competition with British Airways but most of its business is for onward traffic to Asia. No hope in this case, of a pleasant free holiday in Moscow when connections are missed. Visa restrictions limit tourists to a transit hotel with no redeeming features.

The impressive departure board at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow lists an array of worldwide destinations where Aeroflot used to reign supreme, starting with Accra, Addis Ababa and Antananarivo and working through Hanoi, Harare and Havana, all the way to Zagreb. Competition and political intolerance must soon lead to the abandonment or reduction of most of these. Which route will be next to follow Pyongyang and Vientiane into oblivion? With an increasingly fastidious Russian and foreign clientele, Aeroflot is now not only having to buy Airbuses but also to serve Miami, Tokyo and Washington. Tokyo is probably the most successful route from London as no plane change is necessary and fares are pounds 200-pounds 300 lower than those non-stop on JAL or BA.

Other airlines from the ex-USSR are trying to tackle the UK market but one has to wonder how many tour operators will take note of the latest offerings from Belavia, the Belarus airline, or Transaero, a new private Russian carrier. Even though agents are promised 9 per cent commission, will they really try to promote Minsk-Nizhnevartovsk at pounds 210 return, or a group fare of pounds 543 return on the Moscow to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk run?

As always, it is the three Baltic states that break most quickly from the Soviet mould, with Estonia leading the way for the other two. Their airline operates six times a week from Gatwick to Tallinn and no onward connections are possible. Similar services operate to Riga and Vilnius. It is ironic that a country with a population of only 1.5 million can support an airline with only local traffic whereas Belarus, Russia and Uzbekistan clearly fail to do so. Where Tallinn leads, will Tashkent finally follow?

Sample prices include all taxes and were quoted to anonymous researchers this week. The companies and numbers we called were: Gatwick-Karachi for pounds 276 return, via Baku on Azerbaijan Airlines (0171-493 2281); Heathrow- Bangkok for pounds 360, via Tashkent on Uzbekistan Airways, through HY Travel (0171-935 4775); Birmingham-Delhi for pounds 335, via Ashkabad from Turkmenistan Airlines (0181-893 5565).

Neil Taylor is managing director of Regent Holidays.

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