My fairly regular travels have led me to despise the myriad procedures that one must undergo to board an airplane these days. E-ticketing has helped alleviate the situation somewhat, but I still find the processes at US airports grating, wasteful, and often ill-conceived. One of my biggest pet peeves is the need to remove your shoes when going through security. It's a demeaning irritant that adds an extra complication to process that's already enough of a bottleneck the way it is (especially for infrequent fliers).
But after my experiences at Russian airports last week, I'll never complain about the US system again. Okay, that's not really true. Of course, I'll complain again, but at least I'll have more of an appreciation about how much worse things could be.
Perhaps, if you were to really put your nose to the grindstone, bear down with all the mental acuity at your disposal, and devote years to the effort, you could come up with a design that would make the process of getting through a Russian airport less efficient. Perhaps. Apparently concepts such as flow, queue theory, throughput, and bottlenecks are foreign to the planners who laid out the Russian airports that I had to battle my way through. There appeared to be little logic given to the placement of security checkpoints, check-in counters, and customs desks. When the new baggage x-ray machine arrived it was apparently just dumped in the middle of the floor and left in place with only feet to spare between it and where the lines to check-in formed up. This despite the fact that there were acres of empty space on the other side.
Sometimes you feel like cattle when you're at an airport in the United States. In Russia, you literally are prodded, herded, and penned up at various points in the process. When you go to the baggage claim pen, the door isn't opened until all the bags are on the carousel. Naturally the passengers press up against the door like a mob waiting for general seating to open up at a Who concert. When the door does open, we all spill inside and scramble for our luggage. Upon finding said luggage, we all immediately turn around and try to get out the same door, while flashing a baggage claim ticket to the guard. Not exactly the smoothest flowing operation in the world.
The only upside to the Russian airport experience is that the rules (if there are any) are usually much looser than in the US and not enforced with the same vigor. When we were flying from Moscow to Chelyabinsk, we were sitting in the airport lounge twenty minutes prior to our scheduled departure sipping a drink. A few minutes later, an announcement was made and we walked outside, hopped into a van, and were ferried out to the plane. We boarded ten minutes before our scheduled departure. Which would have been pretty sweet if a thunderstorm had not popped up and forced us to sit on the tarmac for forty-five minutes in the stuffy aircraft.
In the airport lounge on the way from Chelyabinsk back to Moscow, one of my coworkers had his flight was delayed and he was trying to get onto our Aeroflot flight (he was on his way to Switzerland). Pretty soon a swarthy, gold-chain wearing guy (another coworker described him as "Soprano's looking), who easily could have been mistaken for a taxi driver, was offering to sell him a ticket for 9000 rubles. Apparently, the "face value" of the ticket was 4000 rubles. This guy was openly scalping airline tickets in an airport lounge. Business as usual in the new Russia I guess.
Eventually, my coworker did get on our flight by purchasing a ticket from the Aeroflot counter. Although the dubious nature of his receipt did lead us to wonder just how legitimate that transaction was as well.
I'll close with my suggestions for mottos for a couple of the Russian airlines that I was on.
The domestic version of Aeroflot (a big difference from the international division): "Sweating on the oldies."
S7 nee Siberian Airlines (which does have pretty planes): "Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"