Air Astana has been forced to navigate a series of challenges over the past two years, but has retained its position as a successful central Asian carrier. Keith Mwanalushi reports
Last year, Air Astana reported its best financial performance, mostly down to laser-focused strategies seen during the pandemic. The airline generated $80 million profit after tax and carried 7.3 million passengers as a group – including its low fare subsidiary FlyArystan.
“This result was supported by some of the principles that we adopted during Covid,” said Richard Ledger, Air Astana’s senior regional manager, UK and Ireland, Western Europe, and Americas.
“We held daily meetings and if we saw something wasn’t working, and it wasn’t driving the load factors at the yield we wanted, then we redirected that capacity elsewhere. In 2022 we delivered our most successful year ever and those results were a 101% increase in profit after tax compared to our highest level before,” he noted.
Having FlyArystan in its armoury at that time meant the group was able to reestablish its domestic operations fairly quickly. At the time of its founding, the low fare model was still new, and Ledger recalled the historical legislation in Kazakhstan that every passenger travelling on an aircraft was entitled a piece of baggage.
Consequently, the creation of FlyArystan enabled the legislation to change. “There was a lot of education needed in terms of how you buy your ticket, online distribution and managing check in.”
FlyArystan is selling online with 30-minute turnarounds out of station, 40 minutes at station offering base fares, plus ancillaries in line with other recognised LCCs like Ryanair, easyJet, Wizz Air or Southwest Airlines.
One challenge after another
The international market, of course, was subject to borders being closed and the airline had to make strategic decisions on where to operate and where the Covid protocols were more manageable, so Air Astana launched routes like Montenegro in the Balkans.
“We had never been to Montenegro before, but we recognised this latent demand, so we got involved in negotiations including visa-free travel. We then launched daily flights from Almaty to Montenegro,” Ledger stated.
Another strategic route is the Maldives. Last year, the route was operated by up to six B767 operation a week from Almaty due to demand from Kazakhstani’s desperate to get away. During the current winter, Air Astana will operate five flights per week on the Almaty-Maldives route, as well as four charter flights per week on the Almaty-Sri Lanka route.
Geopolitical instabilities in Russia, Ukraine and Israel have led to some fortuitous situations, at least to some degree. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, we stopped operating to Ukraine, which was a big market, and we stopped operating to Russia, which was 57 flights a week – another big market for us.”
Ledger recounts industry anxieties about how the airline would survive without the Russian market. Considering, Air Astana is a 49% British owned company, and its lessors and oversight is from the Irish FAA, this meant there was no possible way of operating over Russian airspace with Russian supplies including the use of Russian MRO facilities. “So, we had to again pivot in 2022 and see where we could go. For now, the Russian market is closed for us until further notice,” Ledger indicated.
Through the tragic events in Ukraine, the airline saw a boost in European demand over the network, especially with the mobilisation of the additional 300,000 or so troops which drove traffic onto the network. Russians coming to Kazakhstan to resettle and transfer traffic onto destinations like Dubai and Phuket also gave the airline a slice of that market, ultimately adding traffic to the network.
Air Astana had only just launched new services from Almaty to Tel-Aviv, Israel in September just prior to the start of the conflict there. “It was the first week of our operation, but we have now suspended those services indefinitely. It’s terribly sad because we saw extremely strong demand in both directions between Kazakhstan and Israel.” Instead, Air Astana redeployed that capacity to Urumqi in Western China.
The Air Astana Group now operates a fleet of 46 aircraft, comprising of A320/A321 family aircraft, Boeing 767-300ER and Embraer E2 aircraft. The popular B757s have been replaced by an Airbus narrowbody fleet including currently, 11 new A321LRs. “The B757 was a fantastic aircraft for our route and our range; it’s why we could operate from long skinny lines like London; however, it was expensive, the engines were expensive” – speaking of its legendary RR RB211-535 engines.
According to Ledger, the airline is now achieving around 23% fuel savings with the new A321s, and they come with several interior enhancements compared to the B757s including 16 flatbed business class seats and 150 32” economy seats all equipped with new IFE systems.
Air Astana is closely observing the engine reliability issues troubling Pratt & Whitney on its GTF engine platform and while Ledger gave no specific details, he said: “I won’t comment specifically about what our preparations, but the impact is absolutely clear to us, and we are managing our capacity to ensure that we deliver capacity when it’s needed.”
The airline also flies three B767s; they will exit the passenger fleet when the first B787s start to arrive from Q1 2025. Considering the B767s are late-build models, they could still be strong on the secondary market or perhaps head for freighter conversion. “There may be some enterprising entity that converts them to freighters and starts using them but from our perspective, they’ll go out of the fleet and the B787 will open up even more opportunity,” he commented.
Air Astana is operating four flights per week on the London-Almaty route this winter with A321LRs and Ledger reckons it’s unlikely that the route will move to widebody B787 operations any time soon. He feels the priority for London is to get the frequencies to daily. “There’s a certain market size between London and Kazakhstan and if you put a bigger aircraft on, you’re going to struggle to increase your frequency. For us, its about driving density on the route by frequency rather than aircraft gauge.”
Frankfurt on the other hand is operated by widebody capacity but its dynamics are different, chiefly because it’s fed by a codeshare with Lufthansa which has been extremely successful, feeding into Air Astana operated flights.
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