Momdog Frets while Grandma Kay Sleeps: From San Diego to Russia.
March 1999. When I learned Grandma Kay had booked our flight on the Russian airline, Aeroflot, my stomach twisted into a knot. For good reason. Back in the day when I was an airline stewardess, I’d flown through turbulence so rough I’d watch seasoned flyer’s faces turn white. I’d comforted passengers so terrified of flying they’d have a death grip on their armrest during the slightest bump. I held babies whose mothers spent half the flight in the loo, and never forgot the time our pilot aborted a takeoff in Rome because a small Cessna had wandered onto the runway as our DC-8 barreled down the runway. The terrifying screech of those powerful engines when the captain reversed them stayed with me for months.
I did a bit of research before our flight and learned Aeroflot had the highest number of fatal crashes with passenger deaths – five times more than any other airline. What really frightened me was a well-known crash that occurred in March 1994 with an Airbus A310 that crashed on a flight from Moscow to Hong Kong. The reason? The captain had allowed his son to sit in the pilot’s seat and handle the controls and in so doing, he partially shut off the autopilot. The plane crashed with the loss of 75 lives. Unimaginable! A kid controlling an A310?
“Couldn’t you rebook the flight with another airline?” I asked. “Aeroflot’s safety record is the worst of any airline. I’ve done the research, Mom. Even the TIA pilots I flew with wanted no part of Aeroflot.” I was fine with seeing great art. I wasn’t fine with dying in a plane crash.
But I knew I was in a losing battle because nothing frightened Grandma Kay. She drove like Mario Andretti, chain-smoked until we kids forced her to stop, divorced my father, her second husband died after drinking and getting into a bar fight and she divorced her third husband because he was “boring”. What was the point of wishing to fly to Russia on Lufthansa?
My first impression when we boarded our flight to St. Petersburg was how grim and grey the aircraft, the flight attendants and the “welcome aboard” greeting was: perfunctory, chilly, plastic. The experience felt like the first scene in a play created for and about mannikins.
“Here’s your seat. There are no blankets. The call buttons don’t work. Water or Coke.”
Where’s the greeting and glass of wine? Where’s the lunch menu? Where’s the movie list?
Grandma Kay seemed nonplussed even though she was used to the comforts of First Class.
“For someone who lived through the Great Depression,” I said. “Doesn’t this flight seem a bit bare bones? The carpets look like they belong in the lobby of a cheap motel.”
“This is Russia,” Mom lectured. “They don’t roll out the red carpet like British Airways.”
I’m not worried about Aeroflot’s lack of a red carpet. I’m worried that the guy in the Captain’s seat might think it’s OK if his grandson lands the aircraft.
The meal service was tepid and indescribable. The flight seemed to last forever. I read while Grandma Kay slept. But we arrived in one piece (for which I was grateful) and walked into an airport that reminded me of the LAPD’s Parker Center lobby: tin ashtrays filled with cigarette butts next to plastic chairs chained to the floor. A near-empty dark, dingy area that proclaimed to be the baggage claim station that reeked of cigarette smoke. I felt lost, bewildered, and homesick.
“We’re here!” My mother exclaimed. “So, it seems,” I said. “Wherever here is.”