A History of Aeroflot

Some Highlights, 1921-1981

Copyright © 2001 by Hugo S. Cunningham
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By 1981, Aeroflot, the Soviet monopoly of civil aviation, was "the world's largest civil airline in terms of the mileage of its scheduled routes and number of passengers carried." Abroad, it served 87 countries. "Within the USSR, it served some 3,600 cities and 'populated centers' and overall, it carried over 109 million passengers and 2.6 million metric tons of freight... These figures represented 15% of all passengers carried on scheduled air services throughout the world." [Jones, p. 236]

Although Soviet authorities promoted civil aviation as early as the 1920s, Aeroflot did not gain major economic importance until the late 1950s. Comrade Stalin did not trust air travel for Himself or valued Politburo members. It was one thing to lionize heroic aviator-explorers who extricated themselves from the Arctic in the late 1930s; anyone who proposed subjecting the Great Leader and Teacher Himself to such risks, however, might expect to be sent on some extended "Arctic exploration" of his own!

Pre-WW II (pre 1941) Soviet civil passenger service was even sketchier than in the West. There was great difficulty maintaining scheduled routes (and the effort often wasn't even tried in the winter). Although there were 150 airfields by 1940, most were unpaved. Navigation aids were undeveloped, and aircraft mostly were not designed for rough, unpaved fields. Air fares were kept relatively costly until the late 1950s. One early service started in the summer of 1922 between Moscow and Nizhnii Novgorod, scheduled to cover 420 km in 2 1/2 hours (165 km/hr). A 1922 advertisement contrasted this with 16 hours by train (26 km/hr). [Eyerman, p. 30]
Soviet train service would be faster on some other routes, especially with recovery from the civil war (1917-1921). Nevertheless, though punctual and reliable, Soviet trains ran slower than some in the West.

The first international airline service, a German-Soviet venture DeRuLuft ("Deutsche-Russische Luftverkehrgesellschaft"), connected Moscow to Koenigsberg (1922), later extended to Berlin. There were few other international links until the late 1950s: Prague in 1936 and Stockholm in 1937.

The name "Aeroflot" was officially adopted in 1932.

World War II (1941-1945) greatly stimulated aviation technology and industrial capacity in both the West and the USSR.

As can be seen in tables 1 and 2 below, however, the real explosion in Aeroflot ridership did not start until the late 1950s. Important contributing factors were the introduction of the Tupolev-104 jet airliner in 1956 , the great expansion of foreign service, eg to Western Europe starting in 1958 , government promotion, and, beginning in 1957, a policy of fare reductions.

By 1967, fares had been cut in half, making them competitive with railway fares, winning Aeroflot a majority of long-haul (over 1500 km) passengers.

In the 1960s, the government started spending money on airport facilities, both for the larger aircraft, and for the waiting passengers, often previously consigned to "holding pens."

In the late 1960s, the 168-seat Ilyushin 62 jetliner (and some other designs) provided more range for overseas flights. The Soviets were not able, however, to develop an equivalent to Western jumbo jets like the Boeing 747, DC-10, or Lockheed 1011.

Despite Aeroflot's impressive growth, there were sporadic complaints that it fell short of international standards, eg congested facilities, spotty safety (eg bald aircraft tires, missing seatbelts or oxygen masks), questionable ticket reservation, etc. Some of these problems would grow worse after 1991, after parts of Aeroflot were spun off into local successors with shakier finances and standards.

By 1997, however, foreign observers were reporting that the reorganized, leaner successor organization in the Russian Republic, "Aeroflot-Russian International Airlines" (ARIA) "at last compared adequately with other international flag carriers in such relevant areas as safety, punctuality, on-board service, and service record." [Jones, p. 268].

Table 1

Aeroflot passenger and freight traffic, selected years

year passengers served
x 1,000,000
freight carried (metric tonnes)
x 1,000
total length of scheduled routes
x 1,000
number of employees
1923e42 0.000100g??
1928j244 0.007 0.2 9.3
1932j244 0.03 0.9 31.9
1937j244 0.21 44.4 93.3
1940j244 0.36 58.4 143.9
1945j255 0.537
1947j260 -- -- -- 37,000
1950j256 1.5 -- 300
international 9
1955j257 2.5 194
+ mail 63
1958j257 8.321 445.640 349.2
1966j257 47- 1,300- 475
international 50
1973j260 -- -- -- 400,000
1975j262 97- 2,500- 800
international 300
1981j236 109- 2,600- - -
1990sparts reorganized as "Aeroflot-Russian International Airlines" (ARIA)
1994j267 -- -- -- 14,838
(911 pilots and co-pilots)
1996j268 3.82 -- --

Footnotes to table

Table 2

Inter-urban passenger traffic in the USSR

year % of passengers traveling by ...
railroadriver seaair

Source: Jones, p. 238, table 10.1. Jones in turn cited
Hugh MacDonald, Aeroflot: Soviet Air Transport since 1923, London, 1975; p. 247.

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