Air Astana’s introduction of three-times weekly direct services from London Heathrow to Astana has provided a brand new link between the capital cities of the UK and Kazakhstan, significantly strengthening the relationship between the two countries.
These first direct links from London – to a capital city growing in political and economic importance, and recognized by David Cameron on his visit to Kazakhstan at the end of last year – reflects a shift of prominence (from Almaty) as Kazakhstan’s flag carrier marked its 12th anniversary in May this year. The importance of Astana will be further enhanced when the city plays host to Expo 2017, under the theme ‘Future Energy’.
Air Astana’s flights from Heathrow’s Terminal 4 are operated by Boeing 757-200 aircraft, configured with 16 business class and 150 economy seats, with lead-in return fares of £486. The London-Astana flights now continue on to Almaty, a route the airline was hitherto flying twice weekly, since 2003. Air Astana introduced one weekly service from London direct to Astana at the end of 2013. The new three-times weekly direct service, which commenced on 2nd June , now operates Almaty-Astana-London-Astana-Almaty.
The new schedules also enable passengers to connect on to Air Astana’s expanding network of services to destinations in Central Asia, the Caucasus, southern Russia and western China. Cities currently served include Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Baku (Azerbaijan), Novosibirsk, Omsk and Yekaterinburg (Russia) and Urumqi (China). Some 95% of Air Astana’s market from London is business related.
Now the carrier is planning to widen its European network with the addition of regular flights to Paris from autumn 2014 and to Prague in spring 2015, complementing established European routes from Frankfurt to Astana (daily) and Atyrau to Amsterdam, six times per week. New summer charter routes will also commence from this month – to Rhodes from Astana and from Heraklion and Barcelona to Almaty.
Removal of EU safety restrictions
Route expansion has become possible following the lifting (this April) of restrictions previously imposed by the European Union owing to the failure of the Civil Aviation authorities in Kazakhstan to pass the ICAO safety audit. The EU’s Air Safety Committee had always accepted that Air Astana’s safety standards were fully compliant with the highest international standards, but had nonetheless imposed a limit on Air Astana’s ability to increase its frequency of services to the EU as part of the sanction imposed on Kazakhstan in 2009. However, with effect from February this year, Air Astana was released from those restrictions.
“We are setting about this expansion in a very careful way,” stressed Peter Foster, President of Air Astana, speaking in London today, June 26th. “While we are delighted to be able to expand our operations into Europe now, we could not plan for the expansion beforehand because we didn’t have advance knowledge these restrictions would be lifted. The re-alignment of flights away from Almaty to Astana is an important first step,” he added.
Hand in hand with this expansion Air Astana is preparing to issue an RFP this summer (to leasing companies) as it seeks to determine a replacement for its Boeing 757s. Among the narrow-body candidates are the Airbus A321 NEO and Boeing 737 Max. A decision is hoped for in October/November, Foster noted.
Alliance partnership on the agenda
Collaboration with European carriers will also play a significant part in whatever decision Air Astana makes on its future alliance grouping. Air Astana has enlisted the expertise of Seabury Group, the global advisory and investment banking firm to help them with the evaluation into possible alliances. The airline currently codeshares with three Star Alliance carriers – Asiana, Austrian and Turkish Airlines. It also works with Etihad and KLM, part of SkyTeam.
Since its debut on 5 May, 2002 the airline has expanded dramatically with 4,000 personnel and a current fleet of 31 airliners. To.day, Air Astana operates an all-western fleet of Boeing 767-300ER, Boeing 757-200, Airbus A320 family and Embraer E-190 aircraft, serving 60 routes – 41 international and 19 domestic – from hubs in Almaty, Astana and Atyrau
With the arrival of five new aircraft so far this year and a further Boeing 767 aircraft arriving in the coming months, the average age of the fleet will fall to five years by the end of 2014, making it one of the youngest in the world.
Air Astana has been profitable in all but one year of operation and has contributed greatly to the Kazakhstan economy, with tax payments exceeding US$300 million. The airline has never received any state subsidy. For the full year 2013 the airline declared a profit after tax of US$51.4 million. Whilst that represented a 15.7% decline over 2012, nonetheless, without the combined effect of a one-off revenue adjustment in 2012 and a currency exchange loss in 2013, underlying profit would have slightly exceeded that of the previous year.
Passenger numbers in 2013 increased by 13.5% to 3.7 million and airline revenues by 10.5% to US$967 million.
Air Astana became the first carrier, and remains the only carrier, from the region covering Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eastern Europe to be awarded the prestigious 4-Star rating by Skytrax in its World Airline Awards 2012. Air Astana was also named Best Airline in Central Asia and India. Both accolades were repeated in 2013.
In addition, the 2014 Business Insider Airline Survey has just placed Air Astana amongst the world’s Top 20 carriers for the second year in succession. Its ranking is up to 12th, compared with 18th in 2013. This latest ranking places Air Astana ahead of carriers including Etihad, Turkish Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Virgin Australia, Swiss and Austrian. Business Insider’s experts evaluated the world’s long haul carriers, with maximum possible score of 100 points. Air Astana’s economy class experience based on Skytrax data gained 75 points, whilst on-time performance based on Flightstats.com data achieved 89 points. This on-time figure placed Air Astana ahead of Singapore Airlines, which was ranked #1 overall in the 2014 survey.
Air Astana is a joint venture between Kazakhstan’s national wealth fund Samruk Kazyna and BAE Systems, with respective shares of 51% and 49%.