Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ancient Systems Cause Of Sheremetyevo Crawl

However technophobic you may be, there is one computer in Moscow that it is very difficult to avoid. Everyone who passes through Sheremetyevo-2 airport has to pass through Passport Control and there must face what is probably Europe's slowest computer system still in use.

The wait at Passport Control is legendary. Otherwise aloof businessmen cast pride aside and run from their planes to get to the front of the line. A line of 20 people can take an hour to snake its way past one of these booths to baggage collection.

At the end of these lines are little booths inhabited by uniformed border guards who appear to be inanimate. Of the five minutes they devote to each person in line, they seem to spend at least four gazing into space.

But these poor border guards, subjects of so much anger and incredulity from people waiting in line, are not daydreaming. Having typed something on a keyboard, they are waiting for a lamp to light up giving them the all clear to let each person pass.

It could be that this wait stems from the size of the database that must be checked. Maybe somewhere at Sheremetyevo-2 airport are banks of mainframe computers on which are stored the names of all the people on the planet. This might explain why everyone arriving at the airport has to be checked, regardless of their nationalities and what visas they hold.

The other possibility, less exciting but far more likely, is that this system is in fact some kind of relic. This list is probably stored on an ancient piece of hardware installed around the time the airport was built. It is programmed simply to alert the operator only if there is some similarity between the information he or she enters and any names on this list. Because it has to handle more than one request at a time, the computer painfully grinds its way through each search at a snail's pace.

To ask why they don't replace this system is to repeat the refrain of 100,000 frustrated arrivals at Sheremetyevo-2. I'm sure its not for want of money. Even if the airport were to start charging for "express" passport control, using the same well proven system as "express" visa applications, I'm sure it would have enough money for a new system within weeks. It is not replaced for the same reason that Russia has no universal airline reservation system and why so few airports have modern air traffic control systems: Aeroflot has had other priorities.

I remember before I came to Russia, IBM World Trade signed a multimillion-dollar contract with Aeroflot to upgrade this country's threadbare air reservations system. Our magazine received pictures of a smiling President Mikhail Gorbachev and the head of IBM World Trade. Six years later, there is still no system.

When foreigners first come to Russia, they are often struck by how ridiculous it is that computer technology, which was already old in the late 1970s, is still being used here. As you spend more time in Russia you learn to excuse and explain such things. In many cases there are solid reasons, usually connected with a lack of capital, why people hang on to such old hardware.

But it still defeats me how a country with an information technology market worth more than $2 billion annually can make such slow progress in updating such an obvious piece of infrastructure. Does it cost so much to replace this wretched system? Do passengers count for so little in the plans of those who manage Sheremetyevo- 2?

Robert Farish is the editor of Computer Business Russia. Fax: 929 9958. E-mail: