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Travelers Slam Sheremetyevo`s Service
People arriving at and leaving Sheremetyevo II complain of massive delays when going through passport control.
Foreign businessmen traveling through Sheremetyevo II airport say they are growing increasingly frustrated at massive passport control delays and a range of infrastructure problems.
Many rate Moscow`s No. 1 airport as the worst in Europe, pointing to dirtiness, poor lighting and general shabbiness on top of passport control problems. Some are even suggesting the problems may be due to corruption.
``Sheremetyevo II is the worst possible thing for the image of Russia,`` said Andrew Somers, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, adding that first-time visitors get the impression that nothing has changed in Russia since Soviet times.
``And the Russian government does not understand that,`` Somers said, adding that he has tried to discuss the issue with Russia's top officials, but there has been no progress.
``This is not a good introduction to Moscow,`` said Thomas Kelly, a partner at Andersen in Moscow. ``All the airports in all the former Soviet Union countries are better. It hurts the image of the city for tourists and businessmen,`` he added.
Foreign businessmen based in Moscow, many of whom travel to and from Russia every week, point out that of five or six passport control booths at Sheremetyevo II more than two or three are seldom open, and, as a result, it may take a passenger an hour and a half to pass through passport control alone, which results in flight delays.
``The situation does have an impact on us,`` said a spokeswoman for Delta Airlines, the only foreign carrier that conducts non-stop flights between Moscow and New York. ``Our flights are often delayed and the situation is extremely bad on weekends when a lot of charter flights leave.``
``Things have never been quite as bad as they now are,`` said Ajay Goyal, chairman of The Russia Journal, who has been traveling to and from Moscow for more than 14 years. ``They were always inefficient, but the number of passengers was less and more windows used to be open. One could still get through within an hour. Now, it can take as much as flying time from Frankfurt to Moscow to simply get through the immigration.``
``Russia will never get the foreign investment it needs as long as Sheremetyevo II exists in its present state,`` added a foreign businessman who asked not to be named. "Your first impression on arriving is that you have entered a Third World police state - not exactly the impression that opens up executives`wallets.``
Some suggest that this situation can be explained by corruption and hint that airport officials deliberately refuse to open more passport control booths in order to extort money from passengers for speedy processing.
``I suspect this is intentional chaos,`` said Goyal. ``Anyone can get through the V.I.P. clearance for $100. Hundreds do, and I suspect it`s a flourishing business for some well-connected people. If there were no queues, why would people pay so much? It`s a simple case of a group of corrupt bureaucrats and some criminals holding the whole country`s image hostage. They are deliberately creating snarls at immigration so people are forced to pay.``
Several companies that provide visas for Russia also offer the so-called ``V.I.P. passport and customs clearance.`` But, to be eligible for this kind of service, one doesn`t have to present a diplomatic or official credentials, according to an employee at a Moscow travel agency.
For a flat fee of $90, any passenger can jump the line accompanied by an agency employee with a ``V.I.P.`` sign, she said, adding that people standing in lines normally wouldn`t protest. ``They simply don`t know what`s going on.`` Observers say that several hundred people a day pass through passport control using this scheme or a similar one.
Meanwhile Sheremetyevo II officials refused to comment on the situation at the airport.
A spokesman for the Federal Border Service - which is frequently criticized for passport control delays - declined to say how many officers are stationed at Sheremetyevo II. ``This is classified information,`` he said.
He added that long lines at Sheremetyevo II passport control have nothing to do with inefficiency of the border control service at Sheremetyevo II. ``It`s all the fault of the airport itself,`` he said. ``If there were more room we could place more booths there and station as many officers as there is a need for.`` But he refused to say why most booths at the airport`s passport control are always closed.
Survey Rranks Sheremetyevo II among World`s Worst Airports
Understaffing and poor management mean Moscow`s Sheremetyevo II airport ranks among the worst in the world, according to the majority of respondents to a Russia Journal survey this week.
Of more than 600 people who responded by e-mail or fax, most said the main problem was lengthy lines for leaving the country, especially at peak periods. Indeed, most said the airport would be no worse and no better than many others if that problem were solved.
``The staff on duty at immigration are always efficient and polite,`` said Michel Perhirin, president of Raiffeisen Bank, echoing the view of other respondents who said the main problem is actually getting to the immigration desk.
``Getting to the desk can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 90 minutes,`` said one traveler who responded by e-mail and did not give his name. ``But once you are actually there, the staff is efficient and processing never takes more than two or three minutes.``
``You can spend up to two hours queuing,`` said Benedict Hopkins, who flies in and out of Moscow two to three times a month. He rated the airport as ``very bad - even Sheremetyevo I is better.``
Like many other respondents, Hopkins cited the checking-in procedure and boarding process as adequate, but said there is room for improvement in a whole host of other areas. ``The airport itself is shabby, dirty, poorly lit and gives a bad impression,`` he said. ``If we rate the airport to some third-world airports, it doesn't score too badly. If we rate it to European airports, it is definitely last.``
Others highlighted a lack of services for sick and elderly passengers or nursing mothers, along with lack of seating in the arrivals hall and poor ventilation as being at the top of the list of things that need improvement.
Most respondents asked for their names to be withheld for fear of ``reprisals.`` More than 50 percent of those who responded were Russian executives, and almost all rated the airport as among the worst they have ever used.
One irate businessman, Ander De Cort, said the authorities have underestimated the significance of the problem. ``It`s a shame for Russia,`` he said. ``Many things in Russia have improved significantly, but Sheremetyevo is a major exception. Unfortunately, it`s both the first and last impression that visitors have of the country, and that`s not good.
``It should be a top priority for improvement because it`s like a restaurant in that if it takes an hour to get your order and another hour to get your bill, you will never return, no matter how good the food and atmosphere.``
Passengers noted that while exit lines are mostly a problem in the summer - when the procedure can take up to two hours - passport processing at arrivals is almost always a problem.
They suggested the problem was simply lack of staff manning the passport booths. Immigration officials contacted by The Russia Journal this week would not comment on why the majority of booths are usually closed, but put the blame on management. ``If they gave us more space, we could put in more booths,`` said one official who would not give his name.
Some improvements would be easy, according to Michael Fodor, a partner with F-Squared Market Research. ``For less than $100, I could improve Sheremetyevo 1,000 percent,`` he said. ``I would buy a rope and corral the crowd at passport into one manageable queue like at every other airport in the civilized world. You might not get through any faster, but there would be a lot less aggravation from the horde of people pushing forward en masse.``
Traffic management and parking at the airport could also be improved relatively easily, many said. One executive, who asked not to be named, echoed the comments of many when he said the taxi drivers hanging around the entrance are also a major headache.
``The airport administration should clean out all the taxi drivers hanging around, and remove the militia officers whose only job is to arrange neat parking for large luxury cars for a bonus or whatever that might be called,`` he said.
Another frequently raised issue was customs rules. ``You never know how much money you can take in and out - it seems to change every week,`` said one British businessman who asked not to be named.
Sheremetyevo II could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts during the week. The airport`s Website, www.sheremetyevo-airport.ru, was last updated two years ago and does not provide any further information on the problem.
The immigration services, meanwhile, declined to give the number of employees they have at the airport. ``It`s classified information,`` one official said.
Domodedovo Strives for Western-Level Service
With smokestacks, soot-streaked apartment blocks and dilapidated cottages as its neighbors, Domodedovo International Airport is out of place on the southern outskirts of Moscow.
At night, its bright lights crash against the surrounding forests. Inside the multi-level terminal, passengers glide up escalators. Over loudspeakers, flights to Zurich and Tashkent are announced in Russian and English. There are two bagel shops, a chapel, Internet stations, a coffee shop, a nursery and toilets free of charge.
Domodedovo is striving to be what its only rival, Sheremetyevo International Airport, is not: clean, efficient, convenient and Western.
And after more than $300 million in renovations, this summer Domodedovo reeled in its first major international air carrier away from Sheremetyevo.
On July 11, Swissair announced it was moving its operations and flights to Domodedovo. Company officials said they wanted to get away from Sheremetyevo, infamous among travelers for grueling customs and passport clearances, dingy halls and chaos.
``We wanted to improve our services for our customers on the ground and we wanted to have more flexibility with our scheduling,`` said Roland Jaggi, Swissair`s representative in Moscow.
Until the East Line Group took over management of Domodedovo and started renovations about seven years ago, the airport served as a terminal for cargo carriers and domestic flights, mostly to the Caucasus and points in the east.
But Jaggi believes Domodedovo has the potential to become the chief terminal for international flights.
``The airport today still has the reputation of being the gateway to the East,`` Jaggi said. ``But customers need to get used to the fact that Sheremetyevo is no longer the only way to travel to the West.``
Convenience and speed are what Domodedovo offers, said Natalia Brusilovskaya, spokeswoman for the East Line Group.
Unlike Sheremetyevo, up to 10 passport control counters are open to process travelers who take as little as 20 minutes to clear all checks, Swissair officials said. By comparison, at Sheremetyevo delays as long as three hours are not uncommon, they said.
``We basically have no delays here,`` said Bernhard Buhler, Swissair`s station manager at Domodedovo.
As the only major Western air carrier at Domodedovo, the East Line Group has gone out of its way to meet Swissair`s needs.
``We are kind of like the pioneers, so they are working with us,`` Buhler said.
Indeed, it appears Swissair is telling East Line what it means to run an airport that meets international standards - everything from making sure all signs are in English and Russian to training staff in check-in procedures.
And with plans to build a second terminal by 2003 and to finish train terminals at the airport and at Paveletsky Railway Station by next spring, Swissair officials are hopeful that other Western air carriers will join them soon.
``One or two more airlines would be good for the image,`` Buhler said. But he added that at its present size, Domodedovo wouldn`t be able to handle much more than that.
``Let`s face it, it`s not very big,`` said Kari Stolbow, director of sales for Finnair in Moscow. He wondered if passport and customs officials could handle a big increase in traffic. About 2 million passengers a year use Domodedovo whereas about 10 million use Sheremetyevo's two terminals.
``What happens if there are two or three international arrivals at the same time?`` Stolbow said.
While Domodedovo could suit Finnair`s needs, Stolbow said many customers prefer Sheremetyevo because it is closer to Moscow`s business centers, many of which are located on the city`s north side.
``The small problem with Domodedovo is the location,`` Stolbow said. ``It is 10 km further out than Sheremetyevo.``
But with a train running every hour between Paveletsky and Domodedovo by spring, Swissair officials believe it will be much easier to get to and from Domodedovo.
Buhler said, ``The train is a real advantage.``
Some airlines seem to be seriously considering a move to Domodedovo. For example, British Airways is interested in moving after transport officials turned down a request for a morning flight slot at Sheremetyevo, said Daniel Burkard, commercial manager for Russia. The company would not provide any other details.
Nonetheless, some travelers remain skeptical about how different Domodedovo is from Sheremetyevo.
Martin Kearney, a 42-year-old building contractor, said, ``Cosmetically, it`s clean, it`s tidy, it`s accessible, but underneath the bureaucracy is just the same as Sheremetyevo.``
Kearney, who flies from Domodedovo a couple of times a year, said his experience with customs officials there has been disappointing, with officials seeking bribes just as they do at Sheremetyevo.
``Nothing`s changing in this town, they don`t want it to change,`` he said. ``Some people are making a lot of money. Just look at the cops - they don`t want it to change.``