Kazakhstan’s leading airline f lies high
The award-winning Air Astana is Central Asia’s jewel for holidaymakers and business travelers.
While Kazakhstan is unlikely to rival Thailand or France any time soon as a holiday spot, a fast-growing number of travelers are becoming aware of the charms of this former Soviet republic.
Once an impoverished part of Central Asia, Kazakhstan today enjoys an economy that has improved greatly over the last decade.
Tourism, for example, is booming. According to a report issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in December, Kazakhstan’s international travel market will grow by 20.3 percent annually, making Kazakhstan the fastest growing market in the world.
And global awareness of the country is likely get a further boost over the next few years when Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital since 1997, hosts Expo 2017. This major international exhibition will see more than 100 countries participating, bringing millions of visitors to attend the first event of its type to take place in a former Soviet country.
With such an expected boost in the numbers of business and leisure travelers, a reliable transportation provider will be needed. Happily, the Kazakhstan flag carrier is proving itself to be more than up to the job.
Air Astana has been busy collecting awards that rank it among the best in the world. Industry ratings firm Skytrax granted a 4-star rating; meanwhile it was also heralded as the best in Central Asia and India by the World Airline Awards in June. This distinction is the largest and most prestigious for the international airline industry, also known as the Passenger Choice Awards.
The history of the airline began only 12 years ago. It was incorporated in Almaty — the former capital of Kazakhstan and its largest city — by two shareholders, the Kazakhstan government and BAE Systems of the UK. Since then it has grown quickly, with recent developments including last year’s launch of a Hong Kong route.
“Air Astana commenced operations between Almaty and Hong Kong in August 2012, with a twice-weekly service using Boeing B757- 200 equipment. In March 2013, the capacity increased by 50 percent because of a new weekly service.” says Richard Ledger, director of sales worldwide at the airline.
Kazakhstan has also relaxed its visa application, so that travelers from Hong Kong can now stay for up to 14 days without arranging a visa in advance.
The airline is helping to turn the country into a convenient travel hub, as Ledger explains: “Further, Kazakhstan and more specifically, Air Astana’s base in Almaty, is now developing into a geographically suitable and convenient hub for Hong Kong passengers to route via, to destinations like Moscow, Tbilisi, Kiev, Amsterdam and London.”
A trusted brand
Air Astana currently operates a total of 26 aircraft and has plans to increase its fleet size to a total of 33 aircraft by the end of 2016. At the same time, the airline keeps in check with its available capacity by replacing older aircraft with new and more advanced ones.
For example, the airline just acquired an E90 from Brazilian aerospace company Embraer, and an A321 and A320 from Airbus earlier this year. It will also take delivery of two new B767-300ER aircraft from Boeing this autumn. By the end of 2014, the average age of the fleet will have fallen to just six years.
The airline is continuing to look to the future, and will enter the next stage of fleet development with the introduction of Boeing’s Dreamliner B787 in 2017.
Air Astana’s achievement is all the more impressive given that many airlines from this part of the world have not been held in terribly high regard.
“In June 2009, all airlines in Kazakhstan were banned from operating into Europe by the European Commission, with the exception of Air Astana,” Ledger explains, referring to an International Civil Aviation Organization ( ICAO) audit earlier that year.
“The underlying cause was the insufficient airworthiness and safety oversight performed by the Civil Aviation Authority, the authority responsible for issuing air operating certificates in Kazakhstan.”
Air Astana’s successful passing ( and re- passing) of the IATA operational safety audit, and additional oversight received from the Dutch and British civil aviation authorities in the field of maintenance and airworthiness, makes it an exception.
“This distinction between Air Astana and other carriers in the country, as well as in the region generally, has contributed significantly to Air Astana’s positioning as the leading carrier across Central Asia.”
The airline has also been reaping the benefits of investing in customer service. For 2013, Air Astana was also presented with the best staff service prize in Central Asia and India at the World Airline Awards.
“Understanding what our customers want and tailoring products and services to suit their needs is vital if we are to deliver consistently high levels of service across our network,” Ledger says.
He explains that the broad expansion of its routes — crossing Asia, Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States — has encouraged the airline to adopt a company-wide strategy to meet the demands of customers from different cultures and backgrounds.
For example, the Air Astana website is available in five languages (Kazakh, Russian, English, German, and Turkish) and is divided into countryspecific sites to deliver relevant content. KCTV, the in-flight entertainment system, is available in three languages while the in-flight magazine, Tengri, is available in two.
When pre- advised of any specific dietary or religious requirement, Air Astana can provide over 20 different types of meals. And it pays particular attention to the needs of younger and senior passengers. Many airlines will not permit a child to travel without a parent or guardian. Air Astana, however, can provide the extra care and attention to fulfill this particular need.
“Our philosophy is to ensure that every time we engage with a customer; we grasp the opportunity to deliver outstanding levels of service,” Ledger says, “and we continually seek out further opportunities to exceed the expectations of our customers.”
It was the first visit to Hong Kong and also the first time flying for all of the students and parents involved in the visit. Many of them were amazed by the state-ofthe-art aviation facilities at Cathay Pacific City. Guo Junjie, a boy from the First Middle School of Mingshan district in Ya’an, said: “It’s interesting that such a giant plane was operated in such a small room (flight deck).” Guo carried his teacher out of the classroom during the earthquake. “This was my first time to take a flight and I felt a little uncomfortable in my ears when the plane was taking off,” said Yang Gena, a Tibetan girl in grade six at elementary school. “But the big sisters and brothers from the Cathay Pacific crew took good care of me.” The airline’s excellent service has recently won the world’s best cabin staff prize in the Skytrax World Airline Awards. “The most valuable contribution we could provide is the flying experience for the youths who have never traveled by air,” said Dane Cheng from Cathay Pacific China. This month, 42 teenage first fliers, chosen from training and contests in 14 cities across mainland China, will take part in the Dream Take Flight summer camp in the Hong Kong base of Cathay Pacific and its sister airline, Dragonair.
The Cathay Pacific volunteer team was established in 2007 with 1,100 employees having since joined the group. On the occasion of the visit from the Ya’an students, a number of staff volunteers gave up their free time to take care of the children while they were in Hong Kong. “We had a Change for Good charity event and I, personally, collected donations for these Sichuan children. I wanted to communicate face-to-face with them,” said Zheng Yuemin, who accompanied the delegation during their flight and visit to Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific raised HK$2 million (around $260,000) through a corporate-wide appeal that was given to UNICEF Hong Kong to support its ongoing relief efforts in Sichuan. The donation was made up of contributions from staff and passengers, together with a dollar-for-dollar matching contribution by the company.
A five-day exchange tour for 100 primary and secondary school students from Ya’an in Sichuan province was organized by Cathay Pacific Airways to help rebuild their confidence following a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck their hometown in April. Almost 200 people were killed and over 11,000 injured in the disaster. Cathay Pacific Airways flight CX6843 brought the students, together with their parents and guardians, from Chengdu to Hong Kong on July 22. They visited Cathay Pacific City, which serves as the airline’s head office and includes a 23-floor staff hotel, a flight training center and a museum. During the trip, the students also visited the Hong Kong Science Park, Ocean Park, Hong Kong Disneyland and other major attractions. “These children are well behaved, pure hearted and understanding. They remind me of my two lovely children,” said Dane Cheng, general manager of Cathay Pacific China. “This exchange activity shows the care not only from us, but also from all Hong Kong companies and people.”
Having picked up recent prestigious awards including a 5-star Airline Certification and best airline signature dish for its ‘satay service’ from the SKYTRAX World Airline Awards 2013, Malaysia Airlines is now expanding its list of destinations and increasing flight frequency. The company’s Kuala Lumpur to Dubai service will resume on August 5, with a capacity for 282 passengers onboard each flight. From August 1, the frequency of flights from Kuala Lumpur to Denpasar, Bali, has been increased to 4 times daily.
Mr Richard Ledger, Director Sales Worldwide of Air Astana