MOSCOW — A Russian man has lost hundreds of thousands of air miles after he smuggled an overweight cat onto a cross-country flight last week.
Russia's flagship airline, Aeroflot, kicked Mikhail Galin off its frequent flier programme after accounts of the high-stakes operation went viral on Russian social media.
In a trick reminiscent of a bank heist or spy thriller, Galin used a body-double cat to work around Aeroflot's 8 kilogram (about 18 pound) limit for animals transported in the plane's cabin when flying from Moscow to Vladivostok, on Russia's Pacific coast.
Galin published a detailed account of the operation on his Facebook page on Nov. 6, after both he and his 10 kilogram (22 pound) cat, Viktor, had safely landed in Vladivostok. Photos showed Viktor standing on Galin's lap, gazing out the window, as his owner sipped champagne.
Aeroflot, however, was not amused. The company told NBC News it had conducted its own investigation and concluded Galin violated several airline regulations on transporting animals.
"In connection with several counts of deliberate violation of the air carriage agreement, Aeroflot has decided to exclude this passenger from the Aeroflot Bonus loyalty program," the company said in a statement. "All miles accumulated during his entire participation in the program will be cancelled."
Galin told NBC News on Tuesday that he had accrued 370,000 miles prior to the Aeroflot decision. In addition to violating the carry-on limits for animals, Aeroflot cited Viktor's removal from his cat carrier as among the reasons Galin was kicked off the loyalty program.
"The law is harsh, but it is the law," Galin said when asked how he felt about the decision, invoking the Russian translation of judicial maxim "Dura lex, sed lex." The concept is often invoked in Russia to explain overly harsh applications of draconian laws.
"I violated the rules, and the carrier has every right to take action," Galin told NBC News.
The spat even attracted the attention of the country's Parliament. On Wednesday, the head of the State Duma's ecology committee, Vladimir Burmatov, sent a request to Vitaly Savelyov, the CEO of Aeroflot, "to return the nullified miles to the owner of the fat cat and revise the rules for transporting animals [toward] greater flexibility."
Burmatov also said that the airline should give pet owners the opportunity to pay excess weight fees if their animals exceed the 8 kilogram limit but cannot go into the cargo hold for health reasons or if the flight is excessively long.
The details of Viktor's flight to Vladivostok have become the stuff of legend on Russian social media, where tales of ingenious workarounds to Russia's many stringent and unforgiving bureaucracies often flourish.
Underscoring the sense of arbitrary injustice faced by the duo, Galin said Viktor had already flown in an Aeroflot cabin that day. Galin set off that morning from Riga, the capital of Latvia, where not a single Aeroflot employee seemed to bat an eye — or even ask to weigh — the much-travelled cat.
Only when transferring in Moscow did the airline seek to weigh Viktor, Galin said.
Galin refused to store Viktor in the plane's cargo hold on the eight-hour flight to Vladivostok. So he forfeited his ticket, and then took to Facebook to find a good Samaritan in Moscow with a cat that resembled Viktor, but weighed less than 18 pounds.
That is how he found Phoebe, the cat that would act a Viktor's body double. Galin then used his Aeroflot miles to book a business class seat to Vladivostok the next day. That cat's owners met Galin at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, where it was weighed in Viktor's place.
Once Aeroflot's animal handlers were satisfied they were looking at a suitably-sized cat, the gang made their way back to the terminal and swapped out Viktor's body double. The two boarded the plane in business class on a ticket Galin bought with his Aeroflot miles.
Aeroflot told NBC it had confirmed all the details of Galin's Facebook post by pulling security camera footage from the airport.
Galin told NBC News that Viktor has fully recovered from a bad case of air sickness and was now prepared to give interviews.