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Non-existent safety protocols and woefully outdated planes get my blood pumping. So you can imagine my excitement when I came across the following passenger testimonials:
“An ununiformed man holding an Allen wrench was tinkering with the aircraft’s engine 30 minutes before our scheduled departure.”
“The toilet on this plane was basically a hole in the floor.”
“We took off with 2 passengers with their seats in lay flat bed mode.”
Weirdly, reading stuff like this turns most people off an airline–which might explain why very few reviews have been devoted to the three routes I’ll discuss here.
This scarcity is a real problem for me: reviews are what quench my curiosity for outlandish commercial aviation. This scarcity is also a problem for my understandably protective mother: in the absence of existing reviews, her son is compelled by overwhelming curiosity to fly these occasionally dicey routes and find out for himself what they’re all about.
My mission over the 37 weeks left in 2023 is to fly and review all of them. I’ve made concrete plans to fly two of the three–and rest assured I’ll do my very best to fly the remaining one, though today’s febrile geopolitics means I might not be able to swing it.
KrasAvia Economy Class An-26 (Krasnoyarsk–Lensk)
I hadn’t heard of either Krasnoyarsk or Lensk until I discovered recently a service between the two flown by the Antanov An-26, an exceedingly rare, Russian-built, Cold War relic. This particular An-26 is nearly 50 years old and was originally delivered as a bomber to the Peruvian Air Force in 1976 before being retrofitted for commercial air travel.
I wasn’t able to find any written reviews of this flight, but one of my favorite YouTubers, Noel Philips, made a video of his journey and it’s hysterical–from Olga, the ornery stewardess, to the Soviet tapestries hanging in the cabin, to the drapery over the windows. Tickets on this flight are also extremely affordable, with one ways in economy class (there is no business class) costing around $115.
Though Russia is still issuing tourist visas to US and British citizens, this trip will be the most challenging to justify of any on the list. Geopolitical risk is non-trivial, especially given the country’s affection for hostage-taking as a tool of statecraft. If I do decide to take the trip, I’ll travel on my British passport and stay for less than 48 hours, which a close friend and Russia analyst told me would marginally reduce the odds of an adverse outcome (shortly after expressing in no uncertain terms that traveling to Russia is a bad idea). Although this is a flight that, true to this article’s title, I really want to take, it may have to wait for more peaceful times.
Conviasa Business Class A340-600 (Caracas–Tehran)
I’m a sucker for any obscure airline with a widebody business class cabin. And if that cabin flies between two of the most sanctioned nations on earth, even better. Conviasa checks both those boxes with its weekly flight between Caracas and Tehran. Frustratingly, I can only find one review of this flight and it’s nearly 20 years old.
Gaining entry to both countries is, surprisingly, much easier than I’d originally thought. As a British passport holder, I don’t need a visa for Venezuela and will be granted a tourist card on arrival valid for up to 90 days (though given the high rate of violent crime in Caracas, I only intend to transit the airport). For Iran, I’ll need to work with an authorized Iranian tour company and visit an Iranian embassy which sounds more complicated than it actually is given the whole process takes around a week and costs less than $100.
Buying the ticket also sounds pretty straightforward. A one way business class ticket (what Conviasa calls “Executive Class”) on this route costs just over $2,500, which I think is pretty reasonable, and, although you can’t actually buy a ticket on Conviasa’s website, you can submit a request with your information to purchase one. I did that last week and I’ll keep you posted on what happens.
Turkmenistan Airlines Business Class 777-200LR (London–Ashgabad)
The last ever passenger 777-200LR was delivered to Turkmenistan Airlines in the summer of 2021. Though that plane is currently being used to ferry Turkmenistan’s authoritarian leader and his father around the world, fortunately, the airline has two other 777-200LRs, one of which flies from London Stansted to Ashgabad International Airport every Wednesday.
What intrigues me most about this business class flight is the fact that there are virtually no reviews of it online. The closes I’ve found are a couple of bloggers’ reviews of their economy class flights on Turkmenistan Airlines’ 737, which both seemed wild–passengers rushing onto the plane without showing their passports, the plane taking off with overhead bins still open, and a framed portrait of the smiling former president hanging from the bulkhead.
Booking this itinerary can be tricky for two reasons. First, the entry requirements for Turkmenistan are extremely strict. To successfully obtain a visa valid for up to 14 days in the country, travelers are required to:
- Fill out a multipage visa application
- Have a Letter of Invitation from a local tour operator
- Register with Turkmenistan’s immigration department
- Provide proof of hotel accommodation
- Have a confirmed booking with a certified local tour operator
- Be met at the border by a representative from a local tour operator
At one point, I might have been able to obtain a transit visa, which would’ve granted me somewhere between five and seven days in the country but, although the country began again issuing tourist visas in March of this year, it is still not issuing transit visas.
The second major difficulty is actually purchasing the ticket. As far as I can tell, the Turkmenistan Airlines website is essentially nonfunctional, and in 30 minutes of fiddling, I was able to get the flight to show up but found no way of booking it.
Surprisingly, the airline has an Android app with around 1,100 reviews, but a) I don’t have an Android and b) according to the reviews, in-app payment doesn’t work.
Last week, I tried calling the airline’s sales office on Skype since I could only find a local Turkmenistani phone number, but couldn’t get through to anyone who spoke English. In short, booking a flight from outside Turkmenistan on your own seems like a no-go, but I’ve got a call set up with a tour operator who I’m sure will have some insight into this.
I’ve dreamt over the past few years of flying KrasAvia, Conviasa, and Turkmenistan Airlines and, with any luck, I’ll finally get to fly them this year. At the same time, idiosyncratic factors, from Covid to Putin, have made, and continue to make, traveling unpredictable. While that means it’s possible I’ll only be able to review the latter two flights and save the former for another day, I’d still be quite happy with that outcome. I can’t wait to take you along for the ride.