Bernie, why are you starting a flight review with a picture of a bunch of Russian men at a table? Because this is not a story about where the airline Belavia was — this is more about where Belavia is going. Legally speaking, Belavia turns 20 next March, but they are actually much older. Back in the times of the Soviet Union, Aeroflot used to be broken down into departments based on the Soviet Republics. In other words, there used to be Aeroflot Belarus that was headquartered in Minsk. The Belorussian Directorate of Civil Aviation first came into being in 1953 with its first flight between the old Minsk airport and Moscow.
Having spent so much time working with Belavia and their historic Tu-154s, it’s very important to share why Belavia exists, but also what their current passenger experience looks like.
A Bit of Belavia and Soviet History
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. This left the newly-formed Republic of Belarus with the old Aeroflot directorate and its fleet. The new airline, Belavia, sucked up almost all the employees of the old airline. Not much changed in terms of ownership structure; Belavia started as a 100% state-owned company and will remain that way. Funny that no one complains about this government-funded airline in international media, but I digress. One day, they may explore some private investment opportunities, but they are an unknown length of time from there.
Immediately after Belavia’s official founding, Russia (Belarus’ largest trading partner) fell on hard times, dragging Belarus down with it. The fleet went from a diverse number of Tupolevs and Antonovs down to a fraction of what it once was. But wait? Wasn’t there a Belavia Il-86? Well, yes. Except it was never property of the Aeroflot department in Belarus, nor Belavia.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, lawlessness was the norm. Some shady characters were trying to move an Il-86 to either the Middle East or deeper into central Asia, depending on who you talk to. In the name of convenience, they chose to move it through Minsk and pretend the aircraft was part of (non-existant at the time) Belavia. Eventually, the economy recovered enough such that Belavia could finally lease a new fleet, which is what they have today (other than the Tu-154Ms, which they have kept since their inception).
Belavia’s long-term vision consists of two things. Fleet renewal and a focus on connecting traffic. Belavia is well aware that their CRJ-200s are both too small and too inefficient to meet their needs; they also know that their leased 737-300s and 737-500s are not getting any younger either. If Belavia had unlimited money, their dream replacement fleet would be roughly 15 737-800s, 10 Embraer 195s, and five or six Embraer 175s. They have no desire, or reason, to enter into the long-haul market. It’s so refreshing to see a small airline with a realistic dream.
The problem is that the West’s crusade against Ukrainian self-determination has put Belarus, like Russia, in a serious economic pinch. It has also affected their Baltic trading partners. Cargo is down, and passenger numbers are worse. You can see the difference in Minsk compared to last year — their aircraft utilization has plummeted. Not only does this leave Belavia with less money to spend on fleet renewal, but it seriously hampers their dream of being a connecting carrier for the region.
There is another factor at play hampering Belavia’s sixth-freedom dreams: the government. Right now, some people can get a 24-hour transit visa, but it is not that easy to obtain. Belavia wants this to become a much-easier-to-obtain, 72-hour document. It might happen, it might not. Nothing is ever certain in Belarus until the president signs off on it.
So Belavia has a rough road ahead, but they will recover. Belarus will recover, Russia will recover. Belavia has the government support it needs to at least maintain its current standing regardless. This is a good thing as I am about to explain why Belavia is the second-best airline in Europe, via a recent flight I took with them.
My Belavia Flight Review
We arrived at Minsk as check-in was closing. I had already confirmed my upgrade to business class for a very reasonable price, but due to the late check-in, two of my companions were upgraded due to their seats vanishing. When has that ever happened to you? It was, in fact, one of my friends’ first flights in business of any sort! Sadly, the pressing time made it impossible for me to appreciate Minsk National’s premium lounge.
Boarding was not only via bus, but down a flight of stairs that was also labeled “Air China passengers to Budapest.” Since I was last in Minsk, Air China has started service; it continues on to Hungary.
The seats on the Embraer are the exact same as business class on every E-jet I have flown. Sometimes airlines have in-flight entertainment (IFE), but that is not usually the case. Belavia, sadly, was in that camp.
Still, so much better than almost any other European airline. My goodness, imagine a three-hour flight in a 32″ super slimline that is pretending to be business class? I’ve done it. Not good.
We were given a pre-departure water, a branded candy, and a copy of the Minsk Times. Shortly after the doors were shut, the engines started, and we headed for the runway. The take off roll was around 42 seconds — logical, as we were going for a relatively long flight.
Over western Belarus, we actually passed another aircraft after reaching cruise altitude! Okay, not much of an achievement, as the aircraft we passed in the (slow) Embraer was an Antonov An-74 belonging to Russia’s Air Force. Not a surprising aircraft to see in the Belorussian hinterland. Shortly after the excitement, it was time for lunch. Not a tiny plate lunch of cold cuts and unrecognizable creams, either.
The starter was exactly that. Thankfully, I was flying with a pescatarian friend so I was able to trade my fish for his dish. It felt a bit like a game of Settlers of Catan. Either way, the meats were very-well-cured. I am not even sure what kinds of meat they were; beef something.
I’ll admit, not my best food photos, but I didn’t want to engender the suspicion of the cabin crew for taking pictures in flight. Also, there was so much glare in the cabin from my AvGeek friends leaving the blinds open — the nerve! Oh well, at least the chicken was very good. I thought lunch would be complete after the chicken, but I was wrong — gratefully so!
It was very nice to have a tray service just for dessert. The chocolate bar was lovely, as were the pastries and I think that the one in the middle of the photograph was my favorite.
All very good, and very impressive.
We crossed into the North Sea over Germany and after that we began the labyrinthine task of navigating London airspace.
Sadly, and this is the only negative thing about my Belavia flight, they use my least favorite airport in London: Gatwick. It has an even less premium arrivals experience than Heathrow.
Not Belavia’s fault, I know, but such a sad way to end a great flight.
Why can’t all airlines in Europe be that good? I was thrilled with my Belavia flight to London and I’d happily fly Belavia again in business. The hard part is I rarely have a need to be in Belarus, unless there’s a specific Russian plane that needs me to fly on it.
It seems at every turn, the smaller European airlines offer more value for money, in business class at least, than the big European Three. Full business class seats, better catering, and warmer service. There’s got to be a reason for that, because it’s not like all of these excellent European airlines are caught in an economic storm preventing profitability.