The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

ICHEP Journal – VI

My time in Moscow was excellent. Getting out – that was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Let me break this down for you.

August 3, 2006 9:30 am

I arrive at Sheremetvo-2 airport in a car co-hired by myself and two colleagues from England. We part ways and head to our respective airline passport controls and gates. I’m on a Delta flight – a fateful one, it turns out, one which will teach me the price of information in Moscow and a great deal of patience. SVO-2 has many layers of passenger security. First, you go through a metal detector and x-ray setup right at the main entrance. Then you go through a passport control area where you show you passport and ticket. You then stand in line to have yourself screened by Delta, and answer a series of security questions (“did you pack your bags?”, “where have your bags been since you packed them?”, “did anyone ask you to carry anything?”).

I had no checked luggage, so I went to the ticket counter and checked in. My flight was already delayed by two hours, meaning I would miss my connection in JFK and get back to San Francisco much later than planned (9:30 pm, local time). Frustrated, I got my boarding pass, then went to passport control. I was stamped out of the Russian Federation and entered the gate area, now in a limbo state between two nations. It was here that I met up with some of my colleagues, and we passed time until the delayed boarding.

6:00 pm, or thereabouts

Every hour for the last four, the flight has been delayed one hour. The passengers are all in the secured gate area, and there aren’t enough benches so much of us are sitting on the stone floor. At some point, they moved our plane from the gate, across the tarmac, and over by the new airport construction. Several Americans, who speak very good Russian or live in Moscow, have been alternately chewing out the Delta gate agents. Most of the criticism is centered on two things: just tell us what’s going on, and please supply some water for all these people (“Even Aeroflot gave us water for just a one hour delay!” remarked one young man). There is consternation fomenting in the crowd.

We are finally told that the flight is canceled, and we all have to be readmitted to the R.F. Thinking that a Delta agent is in the lead, a huge number of us head to find the exit. It turns out nobody from Delta is in charge – they didn’t organize us before people started leaving the gate area. Finally, some agents show up, but more confusion ensues as they give different people in the crowd different information about where to go. Finally, we all press back to the passport control gates closest to the gate we had left. One passport control window is open, readmitting us to the R.F. “It takes an hour to get through”:, our frustration growing exponentially. We’re told that we’ll be put up in hotels, but all of us are concerned we’ll wind up in some cheap fleabag (someplace worse than Salut was my fear, which was easy to picture: take Salut and add rats or insects).

One of the amusements for me was a particular passenger on the flight, an older guy with a small family whose anger just kept ratcheting up (it only seemed to go up, amazingly). In his appearance and mannerisms, his straight-forward English assaults on Delta agents and his constant mutterings in earshot of other English speakers, he reminded me of a high-school football coach. He couldn’t stand still, he was agitated with the Delta personnel like they were some rag-tag football team fresh out of diapers and barely able to wipe themselves (which, to be honest, they were). I took to calling him “Coach Larry”, in deference to a former head coach of a Connecticut high-school football team, because he really did remind me of Larry in “coach mode”. Others in my group also took to calling him that, and henceforth this man was simply known as “Coach Larry”.

Hours later, after needlessly standing in line at the Delta ticket window (one window, one person inside), we got on buses and headed for the “Olympic Hotel” near downtown Moscow (forty minutes away). We were all terrified about what this place would be like, since nobody had heard of it and it was NOT mentioned in my guidebook. Adding to the confusion, a lot of business and government travelers on my flight, sitting near me in the bus, were calling home or getting e-mails telling them that they were on a flight out of Moscow at 12:30 pm the next day. Delta had told us as we left SVO-2 that our rescheduled flight was at 2:30. Suddenly, not knowing where we were going and gripped by confusion over when we would be going home, we pulled up to the “Olympic Hotel”.

It turned out that “Olympic Hotel” was the Soviet-era name of the now re-branded “Renaissance Hotel”:, a beautiful hotel on Olympinskii Prospect near the Olympic stadium. This began to unwind our fears, and we got in line to register for our rooms. The Renaissance staff were VERY helpful, ten times moreso than the Delta agents, and they had also been confused by the flight time stated by Delta and were trying to contact Delta, on our behalf, to clarify the situation. Delta paid for the room, dinner and breakfast, and a short phone call.

Over dinner, a number of my physics colleagues were joined by a few non-physicists. One of them, Derenik, had an interest in science and in particular, astronomy and astrophysics. I formed a nice friendship with him over the course of the next 24 hours, not a surprise since all of us were joined by the bonds of resentment toward Delta for their mismanagement of the situation. However, after some beer and stew, I felt much better. The conversation on our side of the table was focused on physics and American competitiveness and innovation. Derenik at one point remarked that this was the most interesting dinner he’d had in a long time, and that he was very pleased to be surrounded by physicists and able to sit, eat, and talk.


That night, I slept very well and worried about the next day.