Air Astana’s recent 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. 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 last month on June 2, 2014, 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 per cent 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.
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 ahead of Routes Silk Road. “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.
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 Airlines, Austrian Airlines and Turkish Airlines. It also works with Etihad Airways and KLM, part of SkyTeam.
Since its debut in May 2002 the airline has expanded dramatically. It now operates an all-western fleet of 31 aircraft including Boeing 767-300ERs, Boeing 757-200s, Airbus A320 family variants and Embraer E-190 aircraft, serving 60 routes - 41 international and 19 domestic - from hubs in Almaty, Astana and Atyrau. Five new aircraft have been added to the fleet so far this year and a 767 arrives in the coming months.
For the full year 2013 the airline declared a profit after tax of US$51.4 million. Whilst that represented a 15.7 per cent 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 per cent to 3.7 million and airline revenues by 10.5 per cent to US$967 million.