Air Astana has been very active this year, increasing frequencies on many of its routes as part of its strategy to grow as a regional hub and networking point, but also in supporting the Expo 2017 three-month event in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital.
Since beginning commercial flights in 2002, the airline has grown steadily and successfully, remaining profitable since its second year of operation. At its peak (before devaluation of the tenge) it recorded a turnover of US$1 billion, but according to Richard Ledger, Air Astana’s vice president marketing and sales, a deliberate shift in focus from domestic to international routes occurred in 2011.
“Initially we relied on a good competitive domestic market, but this changed in 2011, when we implemented our ‘extended home market’ strategy to access underserved ‘near abroad’ markets in Central Asia, southern Russia, western China and the Caucasus – for example Dushanbe [Tajikistan] and Urumqi [China’s Xinjiang province],” he says.
Air Astana has carried an average of 3.8 million passengers in the past three years, and although it services three destinations in Western Europe and five in the Far East, its regional network is where it sees the best opportunity for growth. The airline’s fleet of 31 aircraft is a mixed bunch, including wide-body B767s, B757s, a range of Airbus A321/320/319s and Embraer 190s.
“The average age of the aircraft is 7.8 years, but this will become younger with the planned replacements,” says Ledger. “Our B757s will be changed in the next few years for long-haul neo versions of either the A320 or A321 – we have nine ordered. We also have an option to buy some B787s, but the decision to buy these has not yet been made.”
Still a relatively small airline, the management knows they cannot compete against the major legacy carriers on popular long-haul routes. “We’re strategising to steer clear of the competition,” Ledger continues, “so we look for large, underserved markets such as St Petersburg that have real potential.
“But currently, frequencies are more important than new destinations. By increasing a thrice-weekly flight to daily, you create a more appealing offering to build network passengers through Astana between Asia and Europe.”
Other factors are helping to build the brand too. “OTP [on-time performance] has risen progressively to 90 per cent in the past two years; over the same period sixth-freedom passenger growth has been 65 and 66 per cent year-on-year; and we are beginning to benefit from an ab-initio pilot programme that to date has produced more than 400 cadets,” says Ledger.
The increase in sixth-freedom passenger numbers goes hand in hand with another initiative that began in 2014 – the KC Stopover programme, which was helped by the devaluing of the tenge, meaning that hotel prices in Almaty and Astana became more appealing.
Onboard improvements extend beyond orders for new aircraft. “We have a new IFE streaming facility on the whole narrow-body fleet,” explains Ledger. “You can now download our app and watch ‘KCTV’ IFE on your own device.” Wifi is also being added to all B767s throughout 2017, using a US$5-$50 fee for varying download amounts.
It is worth noting the shift in importance for the airline of Astana International Airport – officially renamed Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport on 21 June – over Almaty airport. Traditionally the main airport for international and regional flights in and out of Kazakhstan, Almaty airport has a 1,500 passenger per hour capacity but is currently running at 1,800. Old and overstressed, it is privately owned and, for unknown reasons, no upgrading seems to be happening – or likely to happen in the immediate future.
In the meantime, Astana is ramping up its facilities with a new “double-decker” terminal about to start operating, and the majority of new flights originating there or flying there from abroad. Astana has been the political and administrative nexus of the country since the end of the 20th century, but only now is it finally becoming the centre of Kazakhstan’s aviation sector too.