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Alaska Airlines begins Soviet flights

By JEFF BERLINER

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Alaska Airlines becomes the first U.S. carrier to make scheduled flights across the North Pacific to the Soviet Union with a sold-out flight Monday.

'We're going over full and we're 58 percent sold so far for the summer,' Alaska Airlines spokesman Greg Witter said from company headquarters in Seattle.

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Alaska Airlines will make three flights weekly between Anchorage and two Soviet Far East cities, Magadan and Khabarovsk, through August.

The airline will use a 136-seat Boeing 727 equipped with extra fuel tanks, Witter said.

Monday's inaugural flight comes three years after Alaska Airlines' 'friendship flight' to Provideniya, a pioneering border-opening adventure that reunited Siberian and Alaska Eskimos for the first time in 40 years and began the thaw of the Bering Strait 'ice curtain' border.

The flight comes one year after Presidents Bush and Gorbachev signed a bilateral agreement establishing new air routes between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Monday's Alaska Airlines flight comes one month after the Soviet airline, Aeroflot, grabbed the distinction of becoming the first airline to make regularly scheduled U.S.-Soviet flights across the Pacific.

Aeroflot's weekly service began May 19 between San Francisco and Khabarovsk via Anchorage. Aeroflot has plans to add more flights later with a connection to Moscow.

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Bering Air, a tiny western Alaska communter airline, flies charters across the Bering Strait between Nome, Alaska and Provideniya.

Alaska Airlines Flight 29 leaves Anchorage at 6:30 p.m. Monday for the 2,000-mile flight to Magadan, arriving 4 1/2 hours later at 6:05 p. m. Tuesday on the other side of the International Dateline. After a one- hour stop, the flight continues to Khabarovsk, 1,000 miles and 2 1/2 hours from Magadan.

The Alaska Airlines flights leave Anchorage on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and return on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Aeroflot flies on Sundays.

Although the two airlines are competitors on the North Pacific route, they are cooperating to make their new service work. Alaska Airlines handles Aeroflot arrangements and ground service in San Francisco and Anchorage while Aeroflot will service Alaska Airlines in Magadan and Khabarovsk.

Khabarovsk, a city of 700,000 people bordering China on the Amur River, has long been open, though few Americans have visited it. Magadan, a city of 150,000 on the Sea of Okhotsk, has been a closed city since it was established more than a half century ago as a gold mining center and distant regional headquarters for Stalin's gulags.

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Improved U.S.-Soviet relations have brought interest in joint ventures and trade and travel ties between the West Coast and the Soviet Far East. But until these flights, travelers had to fly almost around the world, going to the East Coast to catch a Pan Am or Aeroflot flight to Moscow, and then make connections to Siberia and the Soviet Far East.

Airline, business and government officials said the flights will facilitate economic ties between the West Coast and previously isolated Soviet Far East outposts eager for trade and toursm.

Aeroflot has begun by catering to business travelers on both sides, but Alaska Airlines has earmarked adventurous tourists for its summer flights.

Alaska Airlines began soliciting interest in its flights with advertisements earlier this year headlined, 'This year 4,000 non- conformists will be sent to Siberia.'

Alaska Airlines fares were priced to discourage individual travelers and envourage package tour purchases. Round-trip Anchorage-Khabarovsk fares are $1,500, but a six-day, five-night package, half in Magadan and half in Khabarovsk, which hotels, meals, sightseeing and air fare, costs $1,295. The company sells two other package tours as well and air fare only to Magadan, roundtrip or one-way.

But because Alaska Airlines was unable to work out the logistics of selling tickets for rubles in the Soviet cities the airline will service, Witter said the first flight will return empty and the next couple of flights will have empty seats, too, until American tourists start returning from trips lasting five to eight days.

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Monday's flight will offer the first Alaska Airlines Soviet Far East tourists caviar, vodka, perogies and other Soviet cuisine, but airline catering director Carl Baber said all-American cheesburgers and French fries will be served on the way back to the United States.

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