Then: Shoddy service and an appalling safety recordNow: Western-style amenities and FAA-trained staff

Before the U.S.S.R. broke up in 1991, its national airline, Aeroflot, was generally considered sky-high hell. Foreign travelers were shocked at having to haul their luggage across an icy tarmac. Once aboard, they often stumbled over one another in the dark, trying to cram their bags into a storage area below. Next came a climb up a rickety spiral staircase to the passenger level. Smokers and the occasional animal were allowed free reign. Flights were delayed, canceled, or rerouted without a word of explanation. (On some overbooked flights, tickets were sold for the lavatory.)

Inconvenience can be shrugged away; not so, safety. When Aeroflot was deregulated in 1991, the question of who was operating and overseeing the airline industry was, pardon the pun, up in the air. The Russian Federation retained Aeroflot's most lucrative assets, primarily its international division. The "new" airline company, 51 percent government-owned, was renamed Aeroflot Russian International Airlines (Aeroflot RIA).

The remainder of Aeroflot's old operations, and some of the equipment, were sold off to a number of private companies. Several of these, nicknamed "baby flots," continued to use the name Aeroflot (even though they weren't supposed to), mainly because they couldn't afford to repaint the fuselages. Without formal regulation, the standard prerequisites for pilot certification and training, or money to repair deteriorating equipment, the safety record for many of the baby flots was appalling. (And when something bad happened, the press would often simply blame "Aeroflot," even though it had ceased to exist.) Conditions became so dire that in 1993 the International Airline Passenger Association (IAPA), a watchdog group based in Dallas, recommended that no one fly over any part of the former Soviet Union, citing aging aircraft, pilot error, and a lack of cockpit discipline.

Three years later, led by director Valery Okulov, Aeroflot RIA launched an aggressive campaign to bring the airline up to world standards. It invested in Western-made aircraft, including 10 new Boeing 737's, two Boeing 767's, two Boeing 777's, and 10 Airbus A-310's. (The fact that Okulov happens to be Boris Yeltsin's son-in-law may have made it easier to bypass the presidential "Buy Russian" mandate.) Aeroflot RIA now offers coach, business-, and first-class service—a far cry from selling seats in the lavatory—all on a par with other major international airlines. Seats in the business- and first-class sections of 737's and 777's are equipped with video monitors. And in April, Aeroflot RIA launched its first frequent-flier program.

But is Aeroflot RIA really safe?The IAPA reversed its warning in late 1997 following a request from company officials for a reevaluation. "It's a whole different company compared with five years ago," says IAPA chairman Harold J. Salfen, adding that he wouldn't hesitate to fly the airline. Salfen says the change in IAPA's analysis reflects Aeroflot RIA's purchase of new, Western equipment. Both Aeroflot RIA's domestic and international flights meet IAPA standards, and while the airline continues to use older, Russian-made planes on some domestic routes, it now employs mechanical and engineering support staff trained and certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

According to Zurab Sakhokia, general director of Aeroflot's U.S. offices, it's much easier to identify Aeroflot RIA domestic flights today than it was two years ago. "Maybe in smaller cities in Siberia, some airlines have not had the money to repaint their aircraft. But on all major domestic routes, if the aircraft or flight board says AEROFLOT, it's Aeroflot RIA."

Andrey Zakharovo, who emigrated to San Francisco from Russia in 1992, flies Aeroflot RIA several times a year. He thinks that a better public perception is overdue. "Everything is actually incredibly nice," he says. "Aeroflot is right up there with other airlines in terms of food and service. But Americans have grown used to such negative feelings about it. That won't be easy to change."