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When Aeroflot Passengers Rejected Their Pilot

When passengers on Aeroflot Flight 315 heard the pilot make his preflight announcement, they knew something was amiss. The pilot's voice was garbled, barely intelligible — and that was in his native Russian. When he switched to English, it was impossible to understand him at all.

"The first thought that occurred to me was, 'This guy is drunk,'" said Khatuna Kobiashvili, a passenger on the Moscow-New York flight. "His speech was so slurred it was hard to tell what language he was speaking."

As passengers, including a Moscow Times reporter, related their concerns to the flight crew, they were told to "stop making trouble" or get off the Boeing 767 jet. A passenger who called Aeroflot's head office received a similar rebuff.

"They told me that it was impossible for a pilot to be drunk and hung up the phone," said the passenger, Tatyana Vorontsova.

After a chaotic hour during which passengers pleaded with flight attendants, crew and several Aeroflot representatives who boarded the plane, unexpected help came from socialite and TV host Ksenia Sobchak, who was also on the plane, and all four pilots were replaced.

The Dec. 28 incident is a black mark against an airline that has worked hard to distance itself from its Soviet past and assuage passenger fears after a jet operated by Aeroflot-Nord crashed last September, killing all 88 people on board. Pilot error has been blamed for the crash, and a report said Monday that tests had found alcohol in the pilot's blood. (Story, Page 2.)

Aeroflot spokeswoman Irina Dannenberg refused to comment for this article, telling a reporter to "read about it on the Internet."

Immediately after the incident, Dannenberg told Komsomolskaya Pravda that the pilots were removed from the plane because of "mass psychosis" among the passengers. In the same interview, Dannenberg said Aeroflot would sue Sobchak if the costs of delaying the flight were "very large."

Nearly three weeks later, Aeroflot issued a statement saying the pilot, Alexander Cheplevsky, might have suffered a stroke immediately before the flight. Tests administered after the incident found no signs of intoxication, it said.

Oleg Smirnov, a decorated test pilot and head of the Partner for Civil Aviation, said he doubted that the pilot had been drunk because "only a madman" would decide to pilot a trans-Atlantic flight while intoxicated. He added, however, that while pilots are forced to undergo a battery of medical tests before each flight, a test determining blood alcohol level is not among them.

"There is just too much trust in the professionalism of the pilots to think they would do that kind of thing," he said.

Passengers said Cheplevsky, when he finally emerged from the cockpit after refusing to do so for half an hour, was red-faced with bloodshot eyes and unsteady on his feet.

"I don't think there's anyone in Russia who doesn't know what a drunk person looks like," said Katya Kushner, who, along with her husband, was one of the first to react when the pilot made his announcement. "At first, he was looking at us like we were crazy. Then, when we wouldn't back down, he said, 'I'll sit here quietly in a corner. We have three more pilots. I won't even touch the controls, I promise.'"

As passengers waited three hours for a new crew to board the plane, more than 100 of them signed a statement saying they believed that Cheplevsky was intoxicated.

At the same time, an Aeroflot representative sought to assure them that "it's not such a big deal if the pilot is drunk."

"Really, all he has to do is press a button and the plane flies itself," the representative said. "The worst that could happen is he'll trip over something in the cockpit."

Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that Cheplevsky had celebrated his birthday the day before the flight.

Nicknamed "Aeroflop" in Soviet times for its dour flight attendants and bad food, Aeroflot has invested tens of millions of dollars in reinventing itself over the past decade with the help of consultants from McKinsey & Company and Identica, a London-based branding and design consultancy.

The airline banned its subsidiaries from using its name and logo after the Aeroflot-Nord jet crashed in Perm last September, saying it had to protect its safety record.

Aeroflot's safety record is comparable to other major carriers, but the airline is still viewed by many passengers as being subpar in safety and service, said Yelena Sakhnova, an airline analyst at VTB. "Foreigners tend to think that the company is not as safe as other airlines," Sakhnova said. "Russians, on the other hand, think it is the safest of all of the country's airlines, but many complain about the service.

"It's a shame, because when it comes to many of their routes Aeroflot actually provides better service than many of their competitors," she said.

Passengers on the Moscow-New York flight, however, told a different story.

"We really had a legitimate complaint, and the flight attendants were telling us that we were crazy and we should either get back in our seats or get off the plane," Kushner said. "When we insisted on seeing the captain to make sure he was sober, they sent another pilot out who told us that everything would be fine because he would be flying the plane.

"They only started listening to us after Sobchak began making phone calls."

In an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio a few days after the incident, Sobchak said that while she could not prove that the pilot was drunk, she had no regrets about playing a role in having the crew replaced.

"The man was in no condition to fly," she said. "It took him three attempts to say the words 'duration of the flight.' Even after Aeroflot personnel asked him to do so, he barely made it out of the cabin. All of this is a fact. I will make sure that this person will never again touch the controls of an airplane."

Cheplevsky could not be located for comment. An Aeroflot official said he is currently being treated for an unspecified medical condition. It was unclear if and when he would return to work.

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