Flying between Turkey and Russia … 50 times a month

ISTANBUL – Azerbaijanis living in Istanbul have found a new way of making money: jetting to Moscow from Istanbul and back, sometimes to 50 times a month.

A group of Azerbaijanis here are making the most of relaxed visa rules for them in Turkey and Russia, to take the two-and-a-half-hour-flight to the Russian capital almost every day to carry products from Istanbul’s textile companies.

This one-day cargo, which mainly consists of women’s dresses, is important for Russian companies with a high demand for Turkish textile productions says one of these very frequent fliers: 35-year-old Sami.

Hailing originally from Azerbaijan’s autonomous exclave of Nakhchivan, Sami – who does not want to give his real name – describes his business not as “suitcase trade” but “transportation,” adding that it is difficult to estimate how many Azerbaijanis are doing this job.

According to Turkey’s Central Bank, this so-called suitcase trade, in which consumers from Central and Eastern Europe fill their luggage with consumer goods from Istanbul shops, was expected to reach $7.4 billion in 2014.

The trade has been a significant source of revenue for Turkey since the fall of the Soviet Union, when people from Russia, Romania, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia began to come here in the 1990s to purchase consumer goods and pack their suitcases with items to sell at street markets back home.

The trade is primarily centered on Istanbul's Laleli district and in the back alleys of nearby Aksaray, close to the city’s historical and touristic heart.

Sami proudly shows off his passport full of stamps, claiming that he earns more than 5,800 Turkish lira a month.

“I fly around 25 times every month and earn more than $2,500 in total,” he says.

As an Azerbaijani citizen, Sami has been flying almost every day for the last three years, making him a semi-permanent resident of airports in Istanbul and Moscow. Azerbaijanis can visit Russia visa-free for 90 days and have a visa exemption for 30 days in Turkey.

However, an Azerbaijani owner of one Istanbul-based cargo-company – who chooses not to reveal his name – finds Sami’s claim about his earnings to be exaggerated.

“Even if he earns $100 for each flight, he probably lost a similar amount frequently as it is not easy to find customers and it is not easy to gain a customer’s trust,” he says.

Sami, on the other hand, claims that he has regular customers in Russia, especially at Sadovod market in southeastern Moscow.

According to Sami, Russian entrepreneurs contact Turkish textile shop owners in Istanbul and pay around $15-16 for per kilo for the cargo.

“If they tried to send products by normal cargo, they would maybe pay $5-6 less per kilo but they would need to wait more than 10 days,” he says.

Sometimes a 20-strong group flies on the same plane together, carrying almost 1.4 tons of textile products from Istanbul.

As a result of their myriad flights, many of these high-flying couriers hold Turkish Airlines’ top-level air miles card which provides each member of the group with the option to carry 60 kilograms of luggage with them, Sami says.

When Sami or his friends go to Moscow, they immediately give the products to “their men,” and return to Istanbul with the first return flight.

However, for some this process – which can require unfamiliar people to carry clients’ products – is risky.

One 40-year-old Ukrainian shop assistant in Istanbul explains how the process works:

“Customers give us a business card on which is written their name along with the products details that they purchased and a cargo company name.

“We give the products and the card to cart carriers working around this neighborhood.

“When the products reach the cargo company they also write on the card that they received all the products.”

But sometimes this “unreliable” system does not work properly, according to the shop assistant, who explains how they lost $1,000 worth of goods when they sent the products to a customer in a Laleli hotel room.

“The cart carrier left the products in the hotel reception but didn’t get the card back and the customer never received his products,” she says.

“The hotel didn’t help us and we couldn’t find out where the products actually ended up. So we had to send him the same products again,” she adds.

According to her, the reason why some customers choose to send their products via these Azerbaijani one-day cargo specialists is the possibility of Russian customs seizing their goods and making them wait.

“Even if [customers] could get their goods back, it would be too late because the shopping season will pass and they will lose money,” she adds.

Sami had made a couple of attempts to settle in Istanbul during the 1990s. When he came to Turkey for the first time in 1997, he toiled in a textile company as a worker.

After his four-year experience in Istanbul he decided to return home but it took him around eight years to come back to his beloved Istanbul.

When he came a second time, a friend told Sami about a new job opportunity: flying from Istanbul to Moscow.

“At first it was very tiring but I got used it in time,” he says.

Thanks to the huge amount of air miles they have racked up, Sami and his friends now spend their time at Istanbul Ataturk Airport’s lounge areas, making their travels easier.

“Staff in the lounge area, the passport control police officers and the stewardesses know us very well,” he says.

When asked how long he would continue doing this job, Sami says: “I don’t know – maybe until I start up my own business.”

Copyright © 2015 Anadolu Agency