Scandal in Russia over official's plane hold-up
A pilot for Russia's flag carrier Aeroflot was Tuesday hailed as a hero by bloggers for indignantly objecting to a command by air traffic control to delay his flight to allow a top official to board.
The pilot on the flight last week from the Siberian city of Irkutsk to Moscow was told he could not take off until regional governor Dmitry Mezentsev had arrived for the flight from a meeting which had overrun.
The Aeroflot pilot's indifference to the official's rank has made the leaked tapes of the exchange an Internet sensation in Russia and the latest example of the growing use of the Internet to expose the excesses of the elite.
"I'd rather vote for him than (President Dmitry) Medvedev," wrote one user on YouTube, where the exchange has now been listened to almost 350,000 times after its posting by prominent blogger drugoi.
Showing a defiance of authority still rare in Russia, the unidentified pilot bluntly says the governor has no right to hold up passengers and even suggests the press should be invited to find out what is happening.
Pilot: "I was told to get in touch with you, what's the problem?"
Controller: "The top official needs to get here and then we will allow take-off."
Pilot: "Well, let the top official fly on his private jet and I will fly these passengers.
"This not a charter but a scheduled flight... kindly make sure your top official does not turn up late for the flight and then he can fly with us.
"I have already closed the doors and I am not going to allow anyone else on the plane."
Controller: "We are not going to let you take off."
Pilot: "Please invite the television and journalists here to find out why a scheduled flight is being delayed."
Eventually, the plane took off one hour late with Mezentsev on board.
"Courageous pilot! Respect to these guys," wrote another blogger on YouTube.
The transport prosecutors of eastern Siberia have now opened an investigation into whether consumers' rights were violated in the June 8 incident, its spokesman Anton Kabakov told the RIA Novosti news agency.
The Kommersant daily said the scandal risked ending Mezentsev's career, who is already enduring low popularity ratings and is under pressure from ruling party United Russia after poor local poll results.
"I apologised to the passengers, I explained the situation," Mezentsev said in an interview with the pro-government Izvestia newspaper Tuesday in a clear attempt at damage limitation.
"I only use scheduled flights. I have headed this region for two years and not once have I used a private VIP jet."
Mezentsev told Izvestia he had also spoken by phone to the pilot, whom he named as senior Aeroflot captain Andrei Litvinov, a former pilot for the USSR leadership, and had invited him for a cup of Siberian herbal tea.
But Mezentsev failed to win a ringing endorsement from United Russia, with top party official Andrei Vorobyev telling Kommersant that the incident "was inadmissible."
"Putting his head on a stake would be wrong. We need to thoroughly study the situation and draw conclusions."
Leading United Russia MP Alexander Khinshtein was more categorical. "This was utter boorishness. People need to be punished hard for such things, right up to sacking," he said.
© 2011 AFP