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codeshare agreement with Air India, for example
— launches are unlikely until the economic situation
improves at home. Most of the Asian routes under
evaluation would be tourism markets for Kazakhs,
Foster notes, which are “not what we really want
at the moment”. Weak outbound tourism spending
has also put the planned addition of Prague on ice.
Turning to the fleet, Air Astana expects to reach
a decision this year about its upcoming narrowbody
The flag-carrier’s five 757s are between 17 and
20 years old, albeit with newly refurbished interiors.
None of them will be in service beyond 2019. Two
of the A321s are also about 15 years old and
earmarked for retirement.
Given the 757’s unique position in the marketplace
bridging the gap between narrowbody capacity
and widebody range — the proposed long-range
version of the A321neo is seen as an ideal
replacement. The type will be capable of flying up
to 4,000 nautical miles, seating 206 passengers in
a two-class configuration.
“It’s right up our alley is that, depending on what
it can do for us,” Foster says, adding that 11 units
would satisfy the carrier’s growth projections.
“If we can get that aircraft, we know it’ll do all
of Europe from Astana ... It’ll do all of China from
Almaty or Astana. It’ll do most of South-east Asia
from Almaty. And, depending on how good it is, it
might even do a little bit of South-east Asia from
Astana. So it could be a very, very, very good
The arrival of three 787-8s in 2019 will meanwhile
strengthen Air Astana’s widebody operations, being
deployed alongside the three 767-300ERs.
As for the regional fleet of nine E-190s, Foster
says an eventual transition to the E2 would be
“logical” given Embraer’s claimed operating savings
of 8-12%. The Bombardier CSeries is not being
considered. But with the airline’s oldest E-190 only
dating back to 2011, management are in no rush to
replace them. “We haven’t really cracked on with it
yet,” he admits. “We’ve got other fish to fry.”
While management finalise the upcoming
narrowbody order — Boeing’s 737 MAX is still
officially in the running — Kazakhstan is experiencing
a gradual shift of economic power that could, over
time, force a re-think of the dual-hub strategy.
In 1997, Astana replaced Almaty as Kazakhstan’s
capital city. Despite having half the population of its
predecessor, Astana is gaining prominence as the
country’s new commercial hub. Sovereign wealth
fund Samruk-Kazyna is based in the capital, Foster
notes, which makes regular travel there a necessity
for any business looking to tap into the centralised
political and economic system.
“Samruk-Kazyna has an enormous amount of
direct and indirect influence on the economy of
this country,” he explains. “Inevitably that means
the centre of economic gravity is shifting north, and
that’s why we have to follow it.”
The process is a slow one, with Almaty still
functioning as the flag-carrier’s main operational
base. Nearly 69% of the airline’s Available Seat
Kilometres (ASKs) were funnelled through Almaty
in January, compared with 37% through Astana.
But the writing is on the wall when it comes to
infrastructure development. Whereas Almaty
Airport has yet to announce any firm expansion
plans, Astana Airport has begun work on doubling
its annual capacity to 12 million within three years.
It is hoped that much of that capacity will be filled
by sixth-freedom passengers, who have “gone from
zero to ten per cent” of the business since 2013.
Growth in connecting traffic will benefit Almaty
less, Foster says, due to its “wholly inadequate”
transit facilities. As more and more passengers
are routed over the capital, the rationale for a dual-
hub setup may be questioned. But there will be no
attempt to emulate the single hub, “mega-traffic flow”
model adopted in the Gulf.
“You will not see Air Astana carrying people from
Frankfurt to Bangkok, or Hong Kong to London,”
“That’s not a game we want to be in ... Our sixth-
freedom business is entirely based on the region to
the rest of the region; and the region to Asia, and
vice versa; and the region to Europe, and vice versa.”
Kazakhstan’s geographical location still throws
up surprises for the chief executive, even after ten
years in the job. Along with more familiar sixth-
freedom traffic — southern Russia to central Asia,
for example, or western China to Europe — novel
flows keep emerging. He cites the Indian expatriate
community in Georgia as one such market that “we
didn’t even realise existed”.
But fully exploiting these flows requires open
access to the region. While Georgia is relatively
liberal, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan all
impose restrictive traffic rights. As Foster puts it:
“Some of our neighbours don’t like the fact that we
are so successful.”
And that makes it all the more important for
Kazakhstan to continually bang the drum of free
competition and deregulation in central Asia.
The expansion of its visa waiver programme last
year exemplified this commitment. So too did the
historic decision to revoke Air Astana’s domestic
monopolies, thereby fostering private-sector growth.
SCAT Airlines today operates 23% of scheduled
flights in the country. Air Kazakhstan will launch
Bombardier Q400 services later this year. Turkey’s
Pegasus is in talks to establish a Kazakh subsidiary.
North of the border, by contrast, businesses are
hamstrung by restrictive visa requirements, selective
government bailouts, and a culture of distrust among
would-be partners. Kazakhstan, Foster stresses once
more, is “very definitely not Russia”.
“The government is on this unshakeable trajectory
of liberalising the economy to attract foreign
investors,” he concludes. “What you’ve seen so far:
it’s just the tip of the iceberg.” ✈
New Air Astana Economy Class
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