Niet smoking

"At least the cabin attendants know how to subdue raving drunks and repair seats." That is the single tribute to Aeroflot stewardesses in a new survey of the world's airlines. The Russian carrier came firmly last out of 46 companies evaluated by the American publisher Zagat.

But criticism of Aeroflot should be tempered by an acknowledgment of its problems: if you had to fly from Omsk to Tomsk and back again using clapped-out imitations of Western aircraft well past their fly-by date , you too would probably concentrate on landing in one piece rather than worrying about customer satisfaction. And judging by the experience flying from Moscow to London last weekend, at least Aeroflot deserves credit for its uncompromising policy on smoking: a total ban.

British Airways, with whom I flew back, still has a smoking zone on the Moscow-London route. Last Friday night, at least two passengers who had specified no-smoking seats found themselves installed in the middle of the fug at the back of the plane. On an American airline, they would have the legal right to demand that smoking ceased. But the BA cabin crew said no other seats were available and that the unfortunate pair would just have to put up with it. Understandably, they were fuming.

So I went off and found two empty non-smoking seats, albeit in Club Class. The passenger who was suffering the most was eventually allowed to move, but only after the meal service in Club Class had finished. By then, the aircraft had run out of beer and red wine, and things were turning ugly. A row broke out between some smokers whose peace was being disrupted, and those who maintained passengers had the right to fly for four hours without being poisoned.

Having witnessed the martial arts skills of an Aeroflot crew restraining some lively Uzbeks on the long haul from Shannon to Havana, I cannot imagine the Russians would have allowed so unseemly a fracas to develop.