Kaza­khstan’s lead­ing air­line f lies high

The award-win­ning Air As­tana is Cen­tral Asia’s jewel for hol­i­day­mak­ers and busi­ness trav­el­ers.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WEEKEND GUIDE - By CHAI HUA

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.

Re­gional star

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.”

Cus­tom­ized ser­vice

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

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