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February 04, 2009 08:07am

A red-faced Russian pilot was forced from the plane’s cockpit after passengers said he was “too drunk to fly”.

The first sign of trouble came when the Aeroflot pilot slurred his words during the pre-flight announcement aboard a December 28 flight from Moscow to New York, reports the Moscow Times.

”The first thought that occurred to me was, ‘This guy is drunk’,” passenger Khatuna Kobiashvili said. “His speech was so slurred it was hard to tell what language he was speaking.”

When the pilot, Alexander Cheplevsky, reportedly emerged from the cockpit of the Boeing 767 jet after refusing to do so for half an hour, he was red-faced with bloodshot eyes and appeared unsteady on his feet.

Alarmed passengers pleaded with flight attendants, crew and several Aeroflot representatives who boarded the plane, and over 100 of them signed a statement saying they believed Cheplevsky was drunk.

”At first he was looking at us like we were crazy. Then when we wouldn’t back down, he said, ‘I’ll sit here quietly in a corner. We have three more pilots. I won’t even touch the controls, I promise’,” said Katya Kushner, another passenger

The crew was replaced after three hours but the airline at first dismissed the passengers’ concerns: “The flight attendants were telling us that we were crazy,” Kushner said.

An Aeroflot representative sought to assure them that “it’s not such a big deal if the pilot is drunk.”

“Really, all he has to do is press a button and the plane flies itself,” the representative said.

“The worst that could happen is he’ll trip over something in the cockpit.”

Three weeks after the incident, Aeroflot said in a statement that Cheplevsky might have suffered a stroke immediately before the flight and that tests had found no signs of intoxication.

In a bizarre twist, one of the passengers was Ksenia Sobchak, the host of a popular Russian television reality show and daughter of a former St Petersburg mayor who has pledged to use her influence to keep the pilot grounded.

It took him three tries to say the words ‘duration of flight’,” Sobchak told Echo of Moscow radio after the incident, adding: “I will fight to make sure that this person is never again at the controls of an airplane.”

Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that Cheplevsky had celebrated his birthday the day before the flight.

Nicknamed “Aeroflop” in Soviet times for its dour flight attendants and bad food, Aeroflot has invested billions of dollars in reinventing itself over the past decade with the help of consultants.

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