c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

MOSCOW — The classroom filled with slender young men and women in their first week of training at the Aeroflot academy for flight attendants. The men were all square-jawed and broad-shouldered, and the women to the last of them traffic-stopping beauties.

Finding attractive cabin crews has never posed much of a problem for Aeroflot. Training Russians to be nice to customers, well, there’s the rub for the Russian airline and many other Russian businesses. But Aeroflot seems to have done it.

Aeroflot, which says its classic Soviet emblem of a winged hammer and sickle now represents a smile, has been at the forefront of a broad and transformative trend in the Russian service industry brought about by the rising demands of middle-class consumers. Skytrax, a company in Britain that surveys passengers after flights, found that Aeroflot had the best service of any airline in Eastern Europe this year, a mini Velvet Revolution for a region accustomed to old ideas of Russian service. Aeroflot beat U.S. carriers like Delta and airlines offering old-school European service like Austrian Airlines.

“Anna, you just showed the champagne bottle but didn’t say anything,” one instructor gently admonished a trainee, 23-year-old Anna Grishina. “This is the silent service of Soviet times,” the instructor went on. “You need to talk to her,” she said, indicating a fellow student posing as a passenger. “And you need to smile and smile and smile.”

Gone are the scowls, the cold shoulders and the wordless encounters. Aeroflot introduced training that included compelling candidates to memorize dialogues of pleasantries and reinforcing rules on smiling. Its success in improving service is being taken to heart by other companies in Russia’s consumer industries.

Airlines, restaurant chains and coffee shops are putting in place ever more elaborate service training that is yielding results; a new generation of Russian flight attendants, shop assistants and waitresses has become — amazingly, given this country’s sour attitude to friendly service for so many years — customer-oriented.

“It’s a really hot topic in Russian companies,” said Alex Sukharevsky, a partner and leader of the consumer goods practice in the former Soviet Union for McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, which has a booming business here advising retail companies.

The trend is one sign of how a decade of oil money trickling down is transforming Russian society. In politics as in business, rising wealth has given birth to rising demands from an expanding middle class.