I have told this story many times over the years, and I thought that anet readers might appreciate it. I was recently going through a box of old souvenirs and discovered that I had saved several of the boarding passes and other items related to the trip, which gave me the idea to turn it into a TR. There are unfortunately very few photos. I was a poor college student at the time, had carefully saved for this trip, and 35 mm film was a precious commodity that I used too sparingly. I got my first digital camera about 2 years later. I do have a few photos, all taken with my trusty Pentax IQzoom, as well as scans of several relevant documents that aviation fans might enjoy. This trip turned out to be more of an adventure than I ever intended, and I admit that some of it is hard to believe. There were at least 4 distinct moments when I mistakenly said there was nothing else that could possibly go wrong. I remember some details like they happened yesterday, others are a little foggy. I’ll share as much as I can recall. I hope you enjoy my first trip report.
Let’s start with some background:
In the summer of 2001 I participated in a study abroad program in Kiev, Ukraine with about 20 other students from my university. I and a few others had previously spent time in Ukraine or Russia, but many in the group had never been out of the USA. The majority of our time was spent in Kiev, but we would go on to spend several days touring Moscow and St. Petersburg at the end of the trip. We therefore needed to buy airline tickets for an open-jaw itinerary, arriving in KBP and departing from LED. We were all on our own for travel planning, but a large group of us (13, IIRC) decided to band together and go through the university travel office to get our tickets. We talked to one of the agents there, and she offered to watch ticket prices for us for a while and let us know if anything good came up. (This was 2001, and buying airline tickets yourself on the internet was still a bit of a novelty.) Several days later she informed us that she had found an incredibly cheap fare, albeit on an unconventional itinerary. The flight plan was out of LAX: LAX-LHR-DME-KBP, then LED-DME-LHR-LAX. The LAX-LHR segments were on NZ (which sounded very exotic), while the flights beyond LHR were operated by UN (which sounded like an adventure). We were all on our own to get to LAX, but that was fine because we were leaving part-way into the summer break and we all had different points of origin, mostly in the western US. I was part of a small band starting out in SLC, and flying SLC-LAX on DL.
I got my first hint that trouble might be brewing when checking in at SLC. The agent at Delta’s international check-in counter looked over my itinerary and slowly paged through my passport before asking me: “Do you have a transit visa for Russia?” I responded no, and proceeded to explain that we were making a simple transfer in Moscow, and never leaving the airport, so a visa shouldn’t be necessary. And besides, wouldn’t the travel agent have told us if a visa was needed? The Delta agent frowned, then agreed to check my bags through to KBP, but suggested that I check with somebody in London as soon as I got there. I headed off to the departure gate and quickly forgot the conversation.
June 20, 2001
Flight: DL 1579
Personal stats: First ever flight to LAX.
Vintage 2001 DL Boarding Pass:
I really don’t remember anything about this first flight. I was so excited about the adventures ahead that I couldn’t really enjoy the moment. I arrived at LAX and made my way to whichever terminal NZ was using at the time to meet up with the rest of the group.
June 20, 2001
Flight: NZ 2
Personal stats: First ever 747 flight. First 5th-freedom flight. First flight to LHR. Second eastbound TATL.
Vintage 2001 NZ Boarding Pass:
The only detail I remember about this flight is the Cassava chips given out with the beverage service. So yummy, and so totally New Zealand. I would happily fly NZ again.
Twilight over Canada:
We arrived at LHR in the morning (now Thursday, June 21), and had about 12 hours before our scheduled red-eye flight to DME. So we all jumped on the tube and rode into central London to see the sights. I quizzed a few other members of the group to see if any of them had been warned about needing a Russian transit visa when they checked in, but none had, so I chose to ignore the warning I received in SLC.
LHR immigration stamp:
My ticket to Westminster Abbey:
We broke into smaller groups and all had a great day of sight-seeing in London before meeting up again at a specified landmark in the evening to head back to LHR. That was when things started to go wrong. We were denied boarding at LHR due to the fact that none of us had the necessary visa. The UN agent was very helpful, and carefully explained what we needed to do. He told us to come back first thing in the morning and meet with somebody that I assume was UN’s station manager at LHR. That person would be able to re-issue our tickets to go out on Friday night. Once we had the new tickets, we should go directly to the Russian Consulate in London, where it would be possible to get same-day visa processing service. That seemed simple enough.
At this point, I should introduce you to someone that I will call “Dave.” Dave was the student leader for the program, and he conveniently happened to be a close relative of the director of all of the University’s international study programs. While we were waiting for UN to pull our bags off of the plane, Dave was able to make some calls and arrange for overnight accommodations for us through the university’s London study program, although that meant that we would have to back into the city. Then something crazy happened. While we were waiting for the last few bags to come out, the fire alarms sounded and we had to evacuate the landside terminal.
Emergency vehicles outside LHR while we were awaiting the all-clear to go back inside:
I don’t remember how long we had to stand outside, but eventually we were able to go back inside and claim the last of our bags. The helpful UN agent allowed us to leave most of the large bags in a back office, and we caught one of the last trains back to the city for night.
Dave and I got up very early the next morning and went back out to Heathrow. We met the UN station manager, who happily “reissued” our tickets. In reality, he put a sticker over the date on our paper tickets, wrote in new dates, and signed his initials with a red pen. It seemed primitive, but it was sufficient. The UN station manager also told us that since we would now be arriving in DME on Saturday, we would need to transfer airports in Moscow because DME-KBP was operated only on weekdays. So we just needed to call a certain person at a certain number to reserve a bus. We wrote down the phone number and went straight back into the city to meet the others and go get our visas.
Our experience at the consulate was chaotic, to say the least. I’ve learned that there are 3 rules for getting business done with Russians: 1) arrive early, 2) have all your paperwork in order, 3) carry plenty of cash, 4) and remember that “no” doesn’t always mean “no” when you are following rule number 3. To make a long story short, I’ll just say that we fell short of rule 1 & 2, but were saved by invoking rules 3 & 4. Against great odds, we managed to secure 13 transit visas, good for just 2 days: Saturday and Sunday.
Visas in hand, we called UN’s man in Moscow to arrange our airport transfer. He asked us about our outbound flight, and was confused when we told him we were going to Kiev. The London station manager was right that DME-KBP only operated on weekdays, but was wrong about any Saturday flight from a different airport. There was no available flight to Kiev until Monday. This was a major predicament, because we just went through a major hassle and spent all of our lunch money for the summer to get transit visas that would expire on Sunday night. It was now getting fairly late on Friday, and we needed to get back to Heathrow soon if we were going to take the scheduled flight to DME. We all got together and discussed our options. Nobody had the money to stay in London for the weekend and get new visas on Monday, and only one other idea made any sense at all: We take the flight to Moscow that night and play dumb when we get to DME. We have 13 tickets to Kiev issued by their station in London. We’ll try to check in for that flight when we get there and see what happens. On the surface, all of our papers appeared to be in order, and we were gambling that Transaero and the Russian authorities would respect that and help us get to Kiev. We figured the worst case scenario would be taking a train from Moscow to Kiev.
June 22-23, 2001
Flight: UN ### (overnight red-eye)
Personal stats: first flight to Russia and DME.
This flight had a load factor of under 30%. Almost everybody claimed their own row and tried to get some sleep. The seat that I sat in for take-off wouldn’t stay in the upright position, and neither I nor the FA cared. I was exhausted. I woke up when we were on final approach into DME.
We arrived at DME in the early morning and breezed through immigration checks. I was required to show my bag-claim tickets to claim my checked bags in customs – the first and only time in my life that I was asked to show the claim tickets. In 2001, the main terminal at DME had recently completed renovations, and I was pleasantly surprised by how new, clean, and comfortable it was.
After clearing customs, we all gathered together while Dave approached an information desk to casually inquire about the flight to KBP. The confused and concerned agent called her manager. The manager arrived, spoke with Dave for a few minutes, then sent him over to wait with the rest of us. There was a mix of anger and bewilderment in her eyes, but our plan was working. The manager worked the phone furiously for the next half-hour or so while we watched from a distance.
Here is a picture of our merry band sitting in the newly renovated terminal at DME, awaiting our fate (At the right edge you can see an old concourse through the window that hadn’t been renovated yet. The date stamp says June 22 because my camera was still set in USA time.):
The manager eventually approached our group and informed us that she arranged for us to take a flight to Kiev on a different airline, but the flight would be going out of SVO. Four taxis were waiting outside the terminal to take us there, at UN’s expense. The flight was scheduled to leave very soon, so we had to hurry. We split into groups with at least one Russian speaker in each car and took off on a wild ride across Moscow. I was in a car with two girls who didn’t speak any Russian. They took the back seat, while I sat in front and chatted with the driver. We had the normal cab driver conversation, talking about the weather, the crazy people driving the other cars around us, and a bit of politics. The one thing we didn’t talk about was the destination. He never asked me where to go, and I assumed he knew.
SVO was still the primary Moscow airport in 2001, and was something of a dark, unwelcoming place. None of the expansion and modernization projects launched in response to the growth of DME had started there yet. Terminal 1 (which I believe is now known as Terminal B) was on the North side of the runway and handled all domestic flights, as well as flights to Ukraine and other CIS nations. Terminal 2, built for the 1980 Olympics and now known as Terminal F, was on the South side of the runways and handled the majority of international flights. There was no connection between the terminals. I was entirely unfamiliar with SVO, having never been there, nor having planned to go there on this trip. So I didn’t know to instruct the driver to take us to SVO-1. The cab driver simply knew that we were Americans, and he assumed that we would be going to the international terminal without ever asking. So he dropped us off outside the SVO-2 departures area. We took our bags, thanked him, and he went on his way. The three of us then started looking for the rest of our group. We couldn’t find them anywhere outside. I ran in the terminal and looked around a bit, but didn’t see any sign of them. I also checked the information board, and saw no sign of any departures to Kiev. We started to panic. I went back out to the curb to tell the girls what I had learned. We were coming to the realization that we must be in wrong place just when our same cab driver pulled back up to the curb motioning for us to get back in the car and yelling, “Why didn’t you say you were going to Kiev?!” It seems that the other 3 cars arrived together at SVO-1, and when they realized we were missing they called our driver to find out where we were. He picked us up right where he left us and took us on the round-about drive over to the domestic terminal.
IIRC, we finally got to the right terminal less than 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time for our flight to Kiev. We were in a frantic rush, but it quickly became evident that the flight was being held for our group. The agent at the check-in desk wasn’t impressed by the fact that we were connecting from a transatlantic itinerary, and insisted on enforcing the strict baggage allowances for flights within the CIS. The first member of our group to reach the check-in counter was somebody who had previously lived in Russia for a while, and he handled the situation brilliantly. When told that he needed to pay an excess baggage fee of about $60, he thought about it for a moment and replied that our entire group probably would have the same problem, and asked if it was possible to pay a flat rate to cover the fees for the entire group at one time. The agent considered the question for a moment, and flatly responded, “Sto buksov” (hundred bucks). The money was quickly gathered, the “fine” was paid to the check-in agent, and we all got our boarding passes in short order. A scan of my hand-written boarding pass is below. It specifies my seat (20E), and the flight number (406), but not the name of the airline. If anybody out there can tell me who operated flight 406 from SVO to KBP on June 23, 2011, please tell me. I clearly remember that the aircraft was a 737, and the primary livery color was white, but I can’t remember the airline. If it is an airline that still exists today, I think the most likely candidate is Aerosvit, but I can’t confirm that with any sources I know of.
My boarding pass:
Passport control went relatively smooth, although I got the sense that they didn’t see many American passports in SVO-1. The next image is a scan from my passport, showing the all-important Russian transit visa. Notice the validity dates of 23-24 June. The SVO exit stamp is directly on the visa, while the DME entry stamp is on the opposite page.
From passport control we proceeded to the small departure area, and after a brief pause we walked out onto a bus that would take us to the waiting plane. The other passengers had previously boarded, and the 13 of us were alone on the bus. We waited on the bus for what seemed like an eternity. Some students in the group wondered aloud if something was wrong, but in hindsight I think that they were probably waiting until our bags had been loaded, or perhaps until they had unloaded the bags of any passengers who were involuntarily bumped off of the flight. I’m quite sure that someone missed their flight so that the dumb American students could get out of Russia before their visas expired. When we finally boarded the 737, there were exactly 13 seats remaining, all in a block at the very back of the plane. Every other seat was occupied. We quietly took our seats, enduring glares from a few passengers who didn’t seem to appreciate that their flight was delayed for our benefit. I recall the flight being ultimately delayed by about one hour, but I could be off.
June 23, 2001
Flight: Flight # 406, but airline forgotten and unknown. (Can anybody help me out here?)
A/C: 737 (may have been 732)
Although I’ve forgotten the operator, I remember a few things about this flight very clearly. It was a 737 in white livery. The seat pitch was tighter than anything I have ever experienced before or since. And the lunch service included bread, cheese, and Russian kolbasa (sausage). When I asked for water, I got a cup full of strong-tasting, fizzy mineral water. Some in our group didn’t care for it, but for me, having previously spent time in Ukraine, that lunch was the signal that we had finally made it to our destination. I savored every morsel.
We landed at KBP after a short and uneventful flight. Passport control and customs went smoothly.
Here is a scan of the Ukrainian visa in my passport, with the KBP entry stamp.
After emerging into the arrivals area, we were able to call our local facilitator and let her know that we had arrived, and that she should send the van to get us. Everything had happened so fast in the previous 36 hours that we had not been able to get our updated flight information to her any sooner. We were all relieved that we had finally arrived at our destination. Just when we thought that nothing else could possibly go wrong, we learned that Pope John Paul II had just landed at KBP. He was making a pastoral visit to Ukraine, and was being received at the airport with the full honors of a state visitor. Ukraine’s President Kuchma was on the ramp to greet him with a military band. Kuchma and the Pope both addressed the dignitaries and media gathered for the arrival ceremony. The security surrounding the event meant that the entire airport, including the roads to and from the terminal, were closed for about 2 hours. As a result, most of our group ended up asleep on the hard, cold floor of the terminal while we waited for the roads to open so our ride could pick us up. The Vatican’s official report of the event at the airport can be found here:
We were all finally delivered to the host families that we would be staying with by the end of the day. As it turns out, we knew about the Pope’s visit in advance, and we had already planned to attend the outdoor mass at Kiev’s Chaika airfield on Sunday the 24th. Crowds were smaller than expected due to the rainy weather, and I was able to snap this pic of the Popemobile (and one very scary Ukrainian SpetzNaz soldier providing security) from pretty close range (the date stamp on my camera was still stuck in the western hemisphere):
For the next several weeks, we spent our mornings in the classroom learning about Ukrainian history, culture, and current events. Our afternoons were spent on research projects and doing volunteer work with local NGOs. On weekends we made excursions to various places around the country. It was not long before our story made it back to campus, and the university travel office accepted responsibility for not having warned us about needing Russian transit visas. We all received reimbursement for the unexpected expenses incurred. Here are just a few pictures from that summer. (Sorry for the grainy quality.)
Cathedral of St. Sofia, Kiev:
Monument to Bogdan Khmelnitsky, Kiev (I wrote a paper about him in college):
The Motherland monument in Kiev:
Monastery of the Caves (Pecherskaya Lavra), Kiev:
Twilight over the Dnepr River, in Kiev (taken from Hydropark):
Castle ruins in Kamyanets-Podilsky, near border with Romania and Moldova:
City of Chernivtsi:
Carpathian Mountains near L’viv:
L’viv Opera House:
Greek ruins at Khersones/Chersonesus, near Sevastopol, in Crimea:
Livadia palace outside Yalta, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met to decide the future of Europe:
Girl in traditional costume playing the bandura in Zaporozhe:
Entering the Chenobyl exclusion zone:
Abandoned helicopters and ground vehicles used in the Chernobyl clean-up effort:
View of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station from the abandoned workers town of Pripyat:
Closer view of the sarcophagus encasing the remains of reactor #4 at Chernobyl:
Our time eventually came to an end, and we began our journey home with a brief tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg. We had no trouble obtaining Russian visas in Kiev for completing our trip. We traveled to Moscow by overnight train from Kiev. At the border, a Russian immigration official boarded the train and collected everybody’s passports, went someplace to stamp them all, and then came back several minutes later to return them to their owners. After visiting the Kremlin and other important sites over the course of a few days, we made our way to St. Petersburg, again by overnight train. We spent a day at the Hermitage and a day at Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace. After a few days, were on the way home. We had received word a few weeks earlier that UN had changed some of their flight schedules, and we were forced to leave 3 days earlier than planned, with an overnight in London. That also meant that we arrived back at LAX earlier than planned. My DL ticket back to SLC from LAX was on a separate itinerary, but after hearing that UN and NZ brought us home early, the DL representatives at LAX graciously allowed us to standby on the next available flight. That flight was a 767 flying the HNL-LAX-SLC direct flight, and lots of passengers got off at LAX, leaving plenty of room for us to get on and go home. Here are a few trinkets from the homeward journey:
Room key for Moscow Hotel in St. Petersburg:
Boarding pass for UN132, LED-DME, on 17 August 2001:
Boarding pass for UN343, DME-LHR. Note the date of August 17:
Ticket stub for UN343, DME-LHR. Note the originally planned date of August 20:
LHR arrival stamp from my passport, dated 17 August 2001:
Transaero bag claim tickets:
Boarding pass for NZ1, LHR-LAX, on August 18:
I learned a lot of travel lessons on this trip that I still follow today. Here are a few of them:
1 - Never let someone else control your travel plans. I’m usually a laid-back person, but I become a control freak when it comes to travel planning. I fly 6-10 times per year for my job, and I always tell our travel manager exactly which flights and dates that I want. Luckily, she’s happy to work with me. I leave nothing to chance.
2 – Never transit Russia unless there is no other choice. (Apologies to all of my dear friends in Russia.)
3 – Don’t travel in large groups. It can be fun, but is often stressful. In the case of irregular ops, it is always easier for the airline to reaccommodate smaller groups. I travel alone whenever possible. When I have a work trip together with colleagues, I find an excuse for why I need to be on a different itinerary (except when travelling with my boss who is a Platinum Medallion--I was able to get special treatment once during irrops by being on his itinerary).
4 – Don’t get angry when things go wrong. Just enjoy the ride, and remember that it will make for a nice story to tell some day.
Thanks for reading.