Aeroflot Apologizes After Pilot Incident

Aeroflot said Wednesday that it mishandled an incident where a pilot was removed from a plane after passengers accused him of drunkenness, and the airline offered an apology.

The company said tests after the incident showed that Alexander Cheplevsky was not intoxicated. Aeroflot said several weeks later that the pilot possibly suffered a stroke before takeoff.

When reached for comment on Tuesday, Aeroflot representative Irina Dannenberg told a Moscow Times reporter to "read about it on the Internet." On Wednesday, however, the airline struck a more conciliatory tone.

"We accept that his physical condition was not good. We acknowledge the mistake and apologize to passengers," deputy chief executive Lev Koshlyakov said in a telephone interview.

Passengers were alarmed after hearing the pilot's slurred announcement before a Moscow-New York flight.

"The first thought that occurred to me was, 'This guy is drunk,'" said passenger Khatuna Kobiashvili. "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. After a chaotic hour during which passengers pleaded with flight crew and several Aeroflot representatives who boarded the plane, unexpected help came from socialite and TV host Ksenia Sobchak, who also was on board. All of the pilots were eventually replaced.

Passengers said Cheplevsky, when he finally emerged from the cockpit, was red-faced 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 was one of the first to complain.

Koshlyakov, however, gave other causes for the pilot's condition.

"He was in an extreme state of stress when he went out to talk to the passengers," he said. "He normally doesn't speak very clearly as it is, and he apparently spoke even worse now.

"Our pilots aren't trained for direct contact with passengers."

Although pilots are given a preflight checkup, including a "visual examination" by a doctor, tests for intoxication are not administered, he said.

"Each of our pilots is a highly qualified professional, and we trust them completely," Koshlyakov said. "No airline in the world subjects its pilots [to blood-alcohol tests]."

But the incident could prompt a review of Aeroflot policy to better deal with similar situations in the future.

"The incident is, without a doubt, highly unpleasant for us," he said. "We'll definitely draw conclusions from it."

The pilot is being treated for an unspecified condition. "His future with the company will be decided when he completes his treatment."