What to Do If Your Russian Flight Is Delayed

Moscow-bound passengers expected to fly out of New York at 7:05 p.m. Saturday. But the Aeroflot plane only departed 29 hours later, at 12:10 a.m. Monday.

Aeroflot admittedly had no control over the rainstorm that pounded the U.S. East Coast on Saturday, forcing its plane from Moscow that was supposed to collect the passengers to divert to Washington instead.

But the passengers stranded for those long hours at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport still felt that they got a raw deal.

About 70 of the 200 or so passengers camped out at the airport after being told that they would have to find their own lodging. Aeroflot offered a $15 meal voucher — enough to buy a sandwich and a bottle of water — late Saturday night, but the passengers had to wait until Sunday afternoon for their next free meal.

"We did not receive another food voucher until 5 p.m.," passenger Ksenia Galouchko said by e-mail from the airport. "We only heard/saw an Aeroflot representative once in a 12-hour period. 1 a.m.-1 p.m. we were completely alone, trying to get in touch with Aeroflot."

Aeroflot spokeswoman Irina Dannenberg insisted that the airline had provided food as prescribed by Russian law, which says the first meal must be offered four hours after a flight delay and subsequent meals must be offered every six hours.

"According to the information I have, food was provided more than once," she said by telephone Monday.

Dannenberg explained that some passengers were not put up in hotels because of a lack of rooms. "There were about 500 flights delayed in New York on Sunday, and Aeroflot wasn't the only airline unable to find accommodation," she said. "We tried to accommodate as many people as possible, but we failed to find hotel rooms for everyone as the hotels were overbooked in the city."

Russian airlines are, or course, not alone in experiencing flight delays. Hours-long delays by U.S. airlines have prompted U.S. lawmakers to draft new legislation to impose stiff fines on offenders. But Russian airlines face only minor penalties for delays, and few lawsuits have been filed because passengers are reluctant to get involved in drawn-out court battles. As a result, passenger advocates said, Russian airlines have little incentive to improve service.

"It is a common scene to see people stuck for hours in the gate area without access to precise and trustworthy information on when their flight will depart because airline representatives simply avoid them," said Irina Tyurina, spokeswoman for the Russian Tourist Industry Union, a business association representing more than 1,300 companies.

"People start feeling very annoyed, and some get drunk and pick fights with airport staff," she said.

Russian law obliges airlines to provide beverages, as well as the opportunity to make two phone calls and send two e-mails, to passengers whose flight is delayed by more than two hours. Airlines are supposed to provide hot food for delays of more than four hours and provide accommodation for delays that exceed eight hours during daylight hours and six hours at night.

But it is often difficult to force airlines to meet these rules because the fines for violations are "ridiculous," Tyurina said.

The fines amount to 25 rubles ($0.84) per passenger for each hour of delay, and the total amount cannot exceed 50 percent of the cost of the ticket. "The airlines find it cheaper to pay these fines than to feed and accommodate passengers," Tyurina said.

For their part, airlines complain that the law sometimes costs them money by making them pay for Russia's unpredictable weather.

"The airport in Anadyr in Chukotka was closed for 10 days due to icy runways this winter," said Sergei Bykhal, chief of corporate communications with Transaero, the country's second-largest airline in terms of passengers carried last year.

"Transaero accommodated hundreds of passengers in four-star hotels with three meals a day," he said. "As a result, the airline's expenses exceeded the cost of the tickets."

A total of 15 percent of Transaero's flights were delayed last year, mainly because of bad weather, he said.

In comparison, Aeroflot, the country's largest airline, reported delays for only 3 percent of its flights in 2008, according to the latest figures available from the Federal Air Transport Agency, the government watchdog overseeing the compliance of airlines with aviation rules.

Overall, Russian airlines experience about the same number of delays as airlines in Europe and the United States, according to the Federal Air Transport Agency.

"Statistics show that the amount of delays is insignificant in comparison with the overall volume of flights," said Sergei Izvolsky, a spokesman for the Federal Air Transport Agency. "Flights delayed for more than two hours account for about 5 percent of all flights. This figure does not exceed the worldwide average."

Last year, 1.2 percent of domestic flights experienced delays, including 2,516 flights because of bad weather, 2,058 flights because of plane maintenance and other problems that caused airlines to suspend flights, and 126 flights because of problems caused by airports, according to Federal Air Transport Agency data. Comparative data for previous years was not available because the agency only began collecting information about flight delays last year.

Izvolsky said one reason for delays, especially among smaller carriers, is a lack of backup aircraft when a plane is unexpectedly grounded for maintenance or other problems.

"According to the Air Code, an obligatory part of flight planning is having backup planes. A lack of backup planes may cause delays throughout the route and cause financial damage and distress to passengers," he said.

The Federal Air Transport Agency considers levying penalties against an airline if more than 10 percent of its flights are delayed or if it has violated passengers' rights on meals and accommodation, he said. Penalties can include fines and restrictions on international flights.

The law has a provision that allows airlines to avoid fines if a delay is caused by aircraft repairs.

Although delays pose a headache for passengers, few risk seeking justice in Russia's court system, said Tyurina, from the tourist organization.

"People threaten to sue an airline when they are stuck at the airport, but few want to mess with the court system after they reach their destinations," she said. "People just lack persistence in standing up for their rights."

One of the more remarkable cases brought to court was successfully won by 11 passengers in Rostov-on-Don in December. The court ordered SkyExpress, a low-fare airline, to pay the passengers a total of 582,100 rubles ($19,747) — or 52,918 rubles each — for a delay of more than six hours on a flight from Moscow to Rostov-on-Don in December 2008.

SkyExpress, whose flights were 87 percent on time in 2008, said its record improved last year in part because it successfully lobbied the Federal Air Transportation Agency to change the way it calculates delays. Until 2009, the agency based its statistics on when flights departed, not on when they arrived.

"Regulators worldwide calculate the delay by the time of the flight's arrival rather than the departure," SkyExpress spokesman Vitaly Korenyugin said. "It is technically possible to catch up with the schedule during the flight, which reduces delays and improves statistics."

Each of the nine Boeing 737 jets in SkyExpress' fleet logs 10 to 12 flight hours a day, and the long hours mean that the aircraft require more frequent service checks, Korenyugin said.

"When two or three of our jets are being serviced at the same time, this can halt our flight schedule and even a backup plane will be of little help," Korenyugin said. "So we ask for backup planes from partner airlines like Red Wings, Cosmos, Tatarstan Airlines and Atlant-Soyuz or simply reduce our flight schedule ahead of an upcoming servicing period."

The ruling in the SkyExpress lawsuit was unusual because Russian judges tend to be reluctant to award high damages, said Dmitry Chyorny, a partner at the law firm Muranov, Chernyakov & Partners.

"It is not difficult to prove the psychological damage to the passenger, but Russian judges show a moral unwillingness to hand down significant damages," he said. "This is one the principal differences in the approach of the national court system in comparison with the American one."

Another reason lawsuits rarely go to court is because airlines are usually ready to sort out disagreements with passengers first, he said. "Airlines, with few exceptions, try to settle a dispute with passengers in a peaceful manner, even when a flight is delayed because of technical problems. It therefore makes sense for passengers to try to solve the problem without legal action," he said.

In the case of Aeroflot's delayed flight last weekend, the airline eventually offered hotel rooms to all passengers at 7:30 p.m. Sunday and provided vouchers worth $250 to economy class passengers and $350 to business class passengers for future flights on Aeroflot, passengers said.

The plane finally landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport at 4:10 p.m. Monday — four hours after the arrival of the Aeroflot flight that left New York on time on Sunday.

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