Air Astana aims to be Central Asian hub airline

11 Oct 2012

In keeping with its aggressive 10-15 per cent capacity growth per year and numerous recent additions to its Asian network (see previous report here), Air Astana revealed yesterday that next on the agenda are flights from Kazakhstan's Almaty international Airport to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which will start in January 2013.

This is a move that the airline hopes will help achieve the goal of making Kazakhstan a hub for Central Asia.

“Our game is to hub over Almaty and Astana to Central Asia or Russia. If you are going anywhere in Central Asia or Russia from [Asia-Pacific], we really are the airline of choice, and we think we should get all of that market,” said Peter Foster, president of Air Astana.

And with flights to 40 cities within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Russia and Western China, and 14 cities in Kazakhstan itself, Foster maintains that Air Astana has “the most comprehensive network of any airline within the Central Asian and CIS regions. So we offer not only flights to all of Kazakhstan, but also throughout this growing region – what we call our 'extended home market' – via our Almaty and Astana twin hubs.”

The airline is heavily investing in its fleet, having recently purchased US$1.6 billion worth of aircraft, among which are a number of A320s and A321s – to be delivered shortly – and two Embraer 190 regional jets in addition to the seven already in operation. Also on order are four brand new B767s, which are to be delievered alongside three B787s in 2017.

With the new aircraft, Air Astana will focus on expanding its Asian network, since expanding to the west is not possible at this point. The EU's Air Safety Committee has imposed a blanket ban on all Kazakh airlines from flying to Europe after a 2009 audit by the International Civil Aviation Organisation found Kazakhstan Civil Aviation Committee (CAC) to be non-compliant in key areas of regulatory oversight. Air Astana is exempt from the block, but it is not allowed to increase flights to Europe.

Air Astana is working on strengthening links with Asian carriers, with its sight set on Cathay Pacific. “We already have a commercial agreement with Cathay in its infancy, and we hope it will expand in due course,” said Foster at a press conference in Hong Kong yesterday, “and that is something we are here to discuss.”

The carrier currently has codeshare agreements with Etihad, KLM and Asiana, as well as a priority agreement with Lufthansa. It has also recently reached an agreement with China that allows for a considerably larger number of flights to the country.

“In the old days it used to be Turkish Airlines that hubbed to and from Central Asia, but it really is a long way West. Our geographical location is slap-bang in the middle of Central Asia, you couldn’t really get a better location. Anyone who tried to replicate that would struggle, quite frankly.”

But Foster admits that Kazakhstan's infrastructure is an obstacle. "The airport needs work, and that is a bit of a constraint really. New owners have just been announced though, and we are hoping that there will be quite a large expansion programme. The problem is not the runway, it’s the terminal that really needs to be worked on,” he explained.

But the airline is doing its part. It is upgrading its in-flight products, particularly the in-flight entertainment (IFE) offerings. In December, all business class fleet-wide will be kitted out with iPads. Economy classes on the B767s and B757s will be retrofitted with a Seat Integrated Technology (SiT) in-flight entertainment system. The B767s will also have internet connectivity.

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Alex Andersson

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