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Air Travel Lottery in Turkmenistan
Turkmen citizens who wish to visit family or friends in Russia or further afield are finding it increasingly difficult to secure airline tickets – and those who do still have no guarantee of getting on a flight.
The increasingly isolationist former Soviet republic offers few options for those people who can afford to travel to other countries.
Train routes only serve destinations inside Turkmenistan, and the sea route to Azerbaijan - the Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) to Baku ferry across the Caspian Sea - has also been suspended.
That leaves air travel as the only way the Turkmen people can visit friends or family living outside the republic.
People wishing to travel to Russia have to use the state carrier Turkmen Airways, while those heading for another destination, such as Kazakstan, must first fly to Moscow.
As a result, the demand for tickets to Moscow is always high.
But observers say that corruption and inefficiency makes it extremely difficult to buy tickets, while those lucky enough to secure seats have no guarantee that they will be allowed to keep them.
Ashgabat pensioner Maria Alexeevna told IWPR that she has always had trouble buying plane tickets to Moscow, but that this year had been particularly frustrating.
“On April 29, I tried to buy a flight to Moscow for June 10, but I was told that the earliest available flight was on August 3,” she said. “My friends advised me that I should have paid an additional 'fee', and then I would have been sold a ticket for any date of my choosing.”
Tickets for flights in August attract the highest premium, as many people are ending their holidays at this time, and Turkmen students who are studying in Russia are returning to their universities for the new academic year.
The peak summer season is when corruption is at its height, and analysts believe that bribe taking is rife at all levels of the travel industry.
One traveller, who gave her name only as Aisha, said, “Everyone – from the ticket salespeople to the baggage handlers - is prepared to help people buy tickets at speculative prices. Even airport policemen will be glad to help with buying a ticket at an enormous additional cost.
“This is how the system works, and corrupt officials close their eyes to it, because some of the profits go to them,” she alleged.
Ashgabat resident Natalya, the mother of a student currently based in Moscow, told IWPR that in 2004 she had booked her return flights to Russia very early to avoid disappointment – and had paid an “extra fee” or bribe to secure the tickets.
“I ordered a ticket through friends, and it was agreed that it would cost 450 US dollars, with an additional fee of 80 dollars,” she said.
“I handed over the documents and money 45 days before the date of the proposed flight, and I was supposed to get the tickets a week later. I waited for a week, and then another, and when I phoned I was told to keep waiting.
“Three days before I was due to fly, I found out that my tickets were not ready. My money was returned and I was advised to go to someone else, but I'd lost a lot of time and it was already August 30.
“Later I found out that my tickets had been ready and had lain there until the agents found someone who would pay more money for them, and that’s what happened. Someone offered a further 150 dollars. I was naive to think that by paying extra I would guarantee getting a ticket!”
Other would-be travellers report that having a ticket – and being checked in and seated on the plane – is no guarantee that they will be allowed to take off.
Observers say many tickets may be sold for the same seat. As a result, many travellers arrive for the daily flight to Moscow some five hours before check-in even opens, and stand patiently in line.
One traveller, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “We were among the first in line, but when more and more people turned up it soon became clear that not all of us could fit in a Boeing 757.
“When check-in opened, an enormous crush began and only a certain number of people got in. The doors to the check-in hall were locked, and those who didn’t get through were promised that they would get on the next flight the following day. But most of these people had tickets for that flight.”
Even those who are lucky enough to get onto the plane can be removed and replaced with a higher bidder – usually businessmen, or the offspring of wealthy parents - seconds before the doors close.
Andrei, a student at a Russian university, told IWPR, “We were already sitting in our places in the plane and were preparing for take-off when two people got on board and gave the surnames of three people who apparently had problems with their luggage.
“These people left to sort out the problem, but did not return. Instead, two young guys and a corpulent man with satisfied expressions came along and sat in their seats.”
Those who are removed in this manner are usually promised a seat on the following day’s flight. However, if they refuse, the security services can become involved.
Businessman Mikhail was thrown off a flight to Moscow in August 2004 while on a trip to Nalchik in the Russian North Caucasus.
“When I demanded to be put on this flight, because the tickets that I had bought on to Nalchik were waiting for me in Moscow, [the security services] started asking where I bought the ticket and when, and the name of the salesperson who had written out the ticket for me.
“They simply made fun of me when I complained. The situation is absurd. No other country would dream of selling the same airline tickets more than once,” he said.
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