Russia's new low-cost airline makes maiden flight to Crimea

MOSCOW - The seats were cramped but the price was right, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declared on Tuesday as he gave the Russian government's blessing to a low-cost airline serving newly-annexed Crimea.

State-run carrier Aeroflot announced plans to launch low-cost airline Dobrolyot (Good Flight) last year to capitalise on demand for air travel among Russia's growing middle class.

It had planned to fly first from Moscow to St. Petersburg, but took the politically symbolic decision to switch its maiden flight to Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, after Russia seized control of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in March.

While the annexation drew Western condemnation and sanctions, it has proved politically popular in Russia and the government is taking every available opportunity to trumpet it as a victory.

"The plane is cool, it's completely new. Its seats are narrow, but the flights aren't very long so I hope everything will be OK," Medvedev said after inspecting a Dobrolyot Boeing-737 before its maiden flight from Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.

Dobrolyot - which bears the same name as an early Soviet airline that preceded Aeroflot - will run four daily flights from Moscow to Simferopol, with each plane carrying roughly 200 passengers.

One-way tickets in July are currently selling for around 3,000 rubles (US$90) on the company's website, but few are available at short notice due to high demand.

Interfax news agency quoted Medvedev as saying the prices were "really great" by Russian standards, and urging Aeroflot Chief Executive Vitaly Savelyev to keep them low. Aeroflot has said the budget carrier will be able to successfully compete on price with domestic train services. The airline will initially focus on domestic routes between Moscow and cities such as St. Petersburg, Kazan and Tyumen, but also plans to fly to international destinations including Kiev, Istanbul and Barcelona from 2016.

Several Russian carriers including Aeroflot, Transaero and Sibir are already offering discounted flights to Crimea amid a government drive to boost tourist numbers there.