Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Amazing Race 14, Episode 6 (Flights in BRIC: Brazil, Russia, India, and China)

Novosibirsk (Russia) - Moscow (Russia) - Jaipur (India)

Last week's episode of The Amazing Race 14 provided an example of some of the issues that arise with rail travel in Russia, India, and China.

If some of you were prompted to ask, "If it's so difficult to figure out railroad timetables and tickets, why don't they just fly?",this week's episode of the race, from Russia to India, may help give an answer.

In addition to having the world's three largest national railway systems, the BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, and China -- are the world's four largest countries in land area outside the First World, and four of the eight most populous countries outside the First World. Independent world travellers are likely to pass through one or more of these countries sooner or later, and will need to figure out how to cope with their logistical and other quirks. A case could be made that you haven't really seen the world unless you've gotten at least a glimpse of each of these countries. Travel conditions and infrastructure in each of these countries are different than what First Worlders are used to at home. And while there are some common attributes of travel in all of these countries, they are each so large as to be a world of their own, where most people take the domestic norms for granted as universals. (As, of course, do most people in the USA who have never traveled abroad, to an even greater degree.)

So what's it like to fly between and within each of the BRIC countries?

Despite their size and proximity, Russia, India, and China are surprisingly isolated from each other. The extreme case is India and China, which because of border disputes unresolved since their 1962 war have no open land border crossings. Until very recently, the only direct flights between their capitals were those on a "neutral" third-country airline, Ethiopian Airlines, which had rights to carry local traffic on the Delhi-Beijing-Delhi legs of its twice-weekly through flights from Addis Ababa!

The few flights that do operate between Russia, India, and China, mostly connect only a few international gateway airports. To fly between even major "provincial" cities in these countries, you generally need to connect through either these gateways (unfortunately, transfers between domestic and international flights in Delhi or Mumbai/Bombay are sometimes only marginally better than the nightmare transfers between airports that the racers had in Moscow) or a hub in a third country or in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (which still acts like a separate country from China).

Typically that means going through Seoul to get between provincial China and Russia; Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore between provincial China and India; and cities throughout the Gulf (Dubai, Doha, Kuwait, etc.) for connections between Russia and secondary cities in India.

For example, the teams in The Amazing Race 14 all went from Novosibirsk, Siberia (Russia) to Jaipur, Rajasthan (India) by way of tedious changes of plane in both countries' capitals, Moscow and Delhi.

What's odd is that the TV producers actually required them to go through Moscow, even when this was one of the few cases when that was neither necessary nor optimal.

Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, back in the days when Aeroflot was still the world's largest airline, Tashkent (TAS) was the largest Soviet city in Asia (and third-largest anywhere in the country, after Moscow and Leningrad). Not surprisingly, it was also the largest air hub in Soviet Asia and the gateway for most Soviet flights to and from other Asian countries.

After 1992, when Uzbekistan became independent and the Tashkent division of Aeroflot became the new Uzbekistan Airways (IATA code "HY" for the Turkic acronym for "airline"), Novosibirsk (OVB) acquired new significance as Russia's third-largest city and largest in Asia. Since then, its airport has been upgraded, and it has gradually taken on much of the role that Tashkent once had as a regional domestic and international air hub.

With Aeroflot pared down to long-haul routes, and its domestic operations broken up and quasi-privatized, the Novosibirsk division of Aeroflot, now "Siberia Airlines" (IATA code "S7"), boasts of being the largest domestic airline in Russia. And it operates direct international flights to countries throughout Central Asia as well as to Beijing, Seoul, Bangkok and Dubai.

At the same time, there's been an enormous expansion of flights between secondary cities in various India provinces and the Gulf states. While the reason for these flights' existence is to carry Indian laborers to and from their jobs as "guest workers" in countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, they also provide a way for travelers to and from other countries to avoid having to clear customs and make domestic/international connections in Delhi (DEL), Mumbai/Bombay (BOM), Chennai/Madras (MAA), or Kolkata/Calcutta (CCU).

So the simplest way to get between Novosibirsk and Jaipur, with only one change of planes and avoiding larger cities in either country, would have been via Dubai. It wouldn't necessarily have been the fastest route, nor likely the cheapest. But given the low reliability and poor on-time performance of domestic flights in either Russia or India, it might have turned out to be the most efficient.

And the shortest if not fastest route -- less than half the distance the racers had to fly to travel via Moscow -- would still have been via Tashkent rather than Moscow.

Domestic airline services within Russia, India, and China are better than international services between these countries, but only marginally so. Airline capacity in each of these countries remains small relative to their size and to the growing (at least in India and China) elite among the local population who can now afford to fly. The cheapest airline tickets typically cost about as much as first-class rail tickets (sometimes a bit less in India, if you get lucky, and sometimes more in Russia). I prefer to take a train, when I have time, but flying is always much safer. There are, however, potential logistical issues:

In Russia, the combination of the breakup of Aeroflot's monopoly into hundreds of airlines (many of them, unfortunately, still with local monopolies on their particular routes), and the pseudo-privatization of these "baby-flots", led to truly nightmarish difficulties in getting accurate information about schedules or ticket availability as well as substantial declines in reliability, safety, and service, at least at first. Things are improving, and there has been substantial consolidation, but there are still huge differences between some of the larger domestic airlines (S7 in Novosibirsk, for example) and smaller ones serving poorer parts of the country.

Only a few of the larger domestic Russian airlines participate in international reservation systems or financial clearinghouses for ticketing from outside Russia. Buying plane tickets in Russia is much like buying train tickets, as I discussed last week: It's often impossible to make reservations or buy tickets for Russian domestic flights in advance from outside the country, unless you pay a substantial fee to a Russian tour operator to buy them for you locally. Even within Russia, it can be difficult to get tickets in advance on small local airlines in other parts of the country. The help of someone who spekas Russian -- friend or someone from your hotel or guest-house -- can be vital.

In China, a similarly disastrous fragmentation and privatization of the formerly unified government airline has been more successfully reversed, with what were briefly more than 100 airlines in the PRC merged into only about a dozen major regional and international ones today. The quality of service on Chinese airlines today, at least between major cities, is generally far superior to that of Russian or Indian airlines. As long as you have your origin and destination cities written down (either the names in Chinese, or the universally-recognized IATA standard three-letter codes), you don't need to speak any Chinese to make reservations and buy tickets from an airline office or travel agency within China.

The main problem is that airline capacity remains small relative to demand, while most Chinese airlines cling to a perverse system, perhaps emulating China Railways, in which they will confirm domestic reservations only within a few weeks of the date of the flight. Typically, that means first being told it's too soon to make reservations, and then that all seats are sold out as soon as they are offered for sale. Tourists can often "break the quota" of tickets for places on the better trains, for a small-price, but not usually for planes.

As in Russia, it can be difficult to make reservations or buy tickets for domestic flights in China from abroad. Your best chance of getting advance confirmation for domestic flights in China is to ask the international airline on which you are flying to China -- especially if it is a PRC-based airline -- to request reservations for you and include tickets for these flights with your international tickets. It's often a bit cheaper this way, too, compared to buying separate domestic tickets.

In India, the government has been caught between intense foreign pressure for "liberalization" and privatization on the one hand (read, "foreign ownership of Indian domestic airlines", a completely hypocritical demand given the categorical prohibition of foreign ownership of domestic airlines in the USA), and domestic political pressure for protectionism and continued state ownership of long-haul Air India and regional and domestic Indian Airlines on the other.

The result has been that airline capacity in India has grown even less than in China, while a series of foreign-owned and private airlines have come and gone, hamstrung by changing and often deliberately burdensome regulations. While the new private airlines have mostly gotten an excellent reputation for service, it has been risky to buy tickets on any of them far in advance, as their schedules, routes, and even existence have been a month-to-month affair dependent on which way the political winds of the central government are blowing.

Indian Airlines continues to have some of the lowest standards of customer service I've ever experienced, both on the ground and in the air, and their flights are prone to cancellations and delays. But as long as they remain owned by the government, they're not about to go out of business, and if they sell you a ticket, they'll probably eventually get you where you paid to go. And both Air India and Indian Airlines participate in all major international reservation and ticketing systems.

That leaves Brazil, the one BRIC country The Amazing Race isn't visiting this season (although it has several times before in seasons 2 , 9 , and 13 ). Brazil has hardly any long-distance passenger rail service, so inter-city surface travel in Brazil is almost all by bus.

Brazilian buses aren't quite up to Argentina's gold standard of long-distance bus service, but they share the silver medal with Turkey, Chile, and Mexico (and probably Iran, but I haven't yet had a chance to confirm that for myself). Nonetheless, it's a big country, and roads in many areas are poor. The distances mean that even at reasonable per-mile or per-kilometer tariffs, bus tickets can still add up to a substantial cost if you are trying to explore the entire country.

Like Russia, Brazil has a substantial indigenous aircraft manufacturing industry. American Airlines, JetBlue, and many other airlines in the USA and around the world rely on modern turboprops and "regional jets" with up to 100 seats built by the Empresa Brasiliera de Aeronautica (Embraer). But the airline business has been even more cyclical in Brazils's repeated currency crises than in the USA, with a long succession of airline bankruptcies.

The result is a fairly extreme paucity of service, with exceptionally high fares except for a few seats on Brazil-based "low-fare" airlines. The largest of these, GOL , bought the remnants of the bankrupt national flag carrier, Varig, in 2007. Not much was left but the name, as many of Varig's planes -- including a 747 seized while parked at JFK airport in New York -- had already been repossessed by creditors.

Unless you plan your itinerary and buy tickets far enough ahead to get the few cheap seats on discount airlines, you'll pay through the nose to get around Brazil any faster than by bus. GOL/Varig has an extensive route system within Brazil and between Brazil and neighboring countries, but a limited number of flights. Even on GOL and its smaller "low-fare" competitors [such as the new airine Azul mentioned by a commenter], fares get high once flights start to fill up. And prices on the main Brazilian full-fare competitor, TAM, are almost always steep.

The good news is that Brazilian airlines' operations, reservations, and ticketing are more like those of First World airlines than those of airlines in the other BRIC countries. You can make reservations and buy e-tickets on GOL or other airlines' Web sites months in advance, from outside the country, with reasonable confidence that flights will operate more or less as scheduled. (Subject to delays and cancellations for the same sorts of weather and mechanical causes as in the USA.)

Don't count on telephone customer service in English for pretty much anything in Brazil, though, even if the airline or other Web site has an English-language version. And be prepared for hassles paying for tickets with a credit card with a billing address outside Brazil. Foreigners have the same problems all the time, of course, with Web sites in the USA that can't handle foreign address formats or phone numbers, or are deliberately programmed to reject cards issued outside the USA. When I bought tickets on GOL in 2007, I had to go through all my credit cards, and try multiple address and phone formats, before I found a way to get one of them accepted.

I'll be in Europe for the next two Sundays, in Geneva at this conference on aviation and global warming (yes, I am aware of the ironies of flying there, but I want to give the industry a full and fair hearing) and, taking my own advice for an Easter-week vacation in England. To my amazement, I was able to redeem frequent flyer miles for my trip, for a holiday week, at the lowest mileage level, just a few weeks ago.

I hope to have some interesting surprises for my readers while I'm gone, but otherwise I'll catch up with you, and "The Amazing Race 14" (I'm leaving MythTV running) after I get home on April 12th.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 22 March 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

Very interesting info as per usual.

I found that when I was in China last October it was easiest to find a quote from www.ctrip.com or www.elong.net (both with English versions look for the Union Jack or 'English' tab) and then take the quote to a local travel agent to pay cash.

Their booking system is somewhat different to what we're used to in that the earlier you book the more likely you are to pay full fare. Discounts of 70-80% aren't uncommon a day out from departure. Of course this is a tradeoff and you run the risk of missing out completely. Every flight (6/6) I was on was completely full

Posted by: Wayne Phillips, 24 March 2009, 17:28 ( 5:28 PM)

The founder of JetBlue recently started a new low-cost carrier here in Brazil called Azul. It seems that competition and deregulation are gradually arriving too. On popular routes in the south of the country where most of the population lives, fares are competitive and fairly reasonable, but longer flights across the country seem to cost significantly more

Brazil is still not as "online" as the USA especially in regards to e-commerce. Even with a Brazilian credit card, we've had trouble buying tickets online here. I've noticed that often websites are poorly designed, confusing and sometimes just completely broken.

Posted by: Ben, 27 March 2009, 03:00 ( 3:00 AM)
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