Fast-growing Air Astana mulls Tokyo, Singapore, Bali et al – CEO

3 Jul 2023 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
Air Astana's A321(LR) business class cabin

Air Astana, Central Asia’s leading carrier based in Kazakhstan, has grown dramatically since the first service was operated between Almaty and Astana in 2002.

The airline group with its headquarters in Almaty has steadily built a reputation for award-winning customer service, operational efficiency, high safety standards and consistent profitability without the support of shareholders or government funding.

This long-term record of success culminated in 2022 being the airline’s best-ever year, with the group reporting record profits.

The Air Astana Group stable of carriers currently comprises full-service Air Astana and low-cost subsidiary Fly Arystan.

The group currently serves over 90 destinations in Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, China, Germany, Greece, India, Korea, Montenegro, Netherlands, Thailand, Turkey, UAE and the United Kingdom, with a fast-growing fleet of currently 44 modern Airbus, Boeing and Embraer aircraft.

From 2025, Air Astana will add its maiden Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners and it plans to fly them to destinations including New York, its chief executive Peter Foster told Business Traveller Asia-Pacific in Almaty.

On the 787-9s, Air Astana will for the first time launch a proper premium economy product, as well as 30 premium business class seats in a 1-2-1 configuration.

More immediately, Air Astana will launch new services to Tel Aviv in Israel and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia later this year and continue to boost frequencies on existing routes.

“We started coming out of Covid pretty early, around October 2020. That’s when we became cash neutral. And since that time, it’s been great, going up and up all the time,” Foster said.

“Air Astana is now quite a different airline than it was previously, a different beast than in 2019. But that transition was already underway in 2019, Covid just accelerated it. We’ve got a very modern fleet now, both at Air Astana and at FlyArystan, which has obviously grown massively during Covid.”

Fly Arystan just took delivery of its 14th aircraft and two more are on their way for deliveries in the coming weeks.

“Our network obviously has also changed dramatically. Although we are now beginning to put elements of the old network back together, we launched all these lifestyle routes that we added in 2020 and 2021. Basically, it was a rather simple commercial planning activity. The idea was to find countries which did not have punitive Covid protocols and restrictions.”

“We were practically begging countries to let our people fly in, so that’s for example why we decided to fly to the Maldives. Dubai was a lifesaver for us. And so was Turkey and Montenegro, Sri Lanka and then Phuket came along of course,” the Air Astana chief recalled.

Foster continued that Thailand was the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to trial letting people back in during the pandemic and so Air Astana “of course leapt at that opportunity” in November 2021.

“We kept Amsterdam going, we were able to get Frankfurt going again. The next question will be if we’ll get Paris going again. We’ve got Tel Aviv starting in early September and we’re finalizing plans for Kuala Lumpur, potentially with a tag on to Singapore. We are thinking about Bali as well, but that’s still in the early stages.

Next year, we’ll be starting on the Tokyo side of things. The problem, however, is that we don’t have enough aircraft and the ones that we do have are all packed to the gills. This is why we can’t just redeploy the existing fleet, but rather we need to wait for our new aircraft coming in. The problem with that obviously is the manufacturer and supply chain delays across all manufacturers,” Foster explained to BTAP.

This year still, mainline Air Astana expects several additional Airbus A321 neo deliveries, including A321 neo long-range (LR) aircraft for its longer services. In the interim, low-cost Fly Arystan is leasing in additional A320 and A320 neo aircraft.

Peter Foster Air Astana Fly Arystan CEO from PR BTAP

Russia, its war against Ukraine, and suspended overflying remain an issue for the airline, although there is a silver lining.

“Some of our flights now take significantly longer as we no longer fly through Russian airspace. That’s really pushing the range limitations on our current aircraft, even on our new A321 neo long range aircraft.

Our flights to Europe are now sort of skirting on the Black Sea from Turkey to Bulgaria where they start overflying continental Europe. It’s a very scenic route, it’s just not very efficient,” Foster said.

On its daily flights to London’s Heathrow, Air Astana currently has a refueling stop both ways in Aktau, on the Kazakh side of the Caspian Sea.

Air Astana is currently looking at options to further extend the range of its A321 neos, and it has the 787-9s coming in starting in approximately 20 months.

Thailand is now one of Air Astana’s largest markets and if it had the capacity the airline could easily fly to the country twice a day, Foster explained.

“We have a lot of, unsolicited I should say, Russian travelers on those flights as well.

I say unsolicited because we have ceased all activities in Russia, closed our offices, shut down the website. You can’t buy a ticket on Air Astana in Russia. But, of course, the Russian diaspora is increasingly prevalent around the world, so they can still buy tickets from wherever they flocked to.

The thing is, the Russians that came to Kazakhstan with the war are soon going to travel more because Kazakhstan is cutting back the time they’re allowed to stay here,” Foster prophesized.

This year Air Astana celebrated its 21st anniversary and Foster has been at the helm for most of that time, since 2005 to be exact.

Starting first in 2010, Air Astana has repeatedly received service excellence awards including from Skytrax, APEX and Tripadvisor, together with a Global Market Leadership Award from Air Transport World.

In line with its fleet and network development plans, Air Astana group passenger traffic is forecast to grow to 8.5 million in 2023, up from 7.35 million passengers carried last year.

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