Air Astana Targets Travel From Europe to Central Asian Neighbors

Air Astana, Kazakhstan’s state-controlled carrier, is seeking to expand its home base into a hub for travel between west European capitals and other central Asian republics as it prepares to add more aircraft.

The airline has 30 planes and began flights to Paris on March 29 with three services weekly. It aims to increase that to a daily service, Chief Executive Officer Peter Foster said in an interview Thursday. The carrier already served cities including Frankfurt and London from Astana, the Kazakh capital.

The airline, 49 percent owned by U.K. defense company BAE Systems Plc, has three wide-body Boeing Co. 787s on order and options for another nine, Foster said. Next month, it plans to make a final decision on taking new single-aisle planes, either 11 Airbus Group NV A320neos or 11 Boeing 737 Max aircraft.

Air Astana will focus on services to other central Asian republics, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and southwest Russia, he said. The government is bolstering those efforts by expanding Astana airport and easing travel restrictions.

The base has reached saturation point with 3.5 million passengers a year, so the state is investing to raise capacity to 7.1 million by 2017, Foster said. The government last year dropped visa requirements for stays of less than 15 days for citizens from 10 countries including France, Japan and Germany.

Fallen Costs

While the airline serves southeast and northern Asia, it won’t try to draw passengers from Europe through Astana to eastern Asia, to avoid direct competition with far bigger Gulf carriers focused on transfer traffic, as well as airlines offering direct services.

“What we don’t want to do and will not do is business of big movements between southeast Asia, Hong Kong, north Asia and Europe,” Foster said. “The yield on that sort of traffic isn’t great as the competition’s too stiff.”

The carrier’s unit costs have dropped since it was founded 13 years ago, as its fleet has grown and fuel costs have fallen, so it can make money if flights are 60 percent full on average, Foster said.

Business traffic should account for a significant amount of business, he said. French power company Areva SA, yogurt maker Danone SA and oil producer Total SA are among the large foreign companies with operations in Kazakhstan.

The carrier will begin serving the U.S. in 2019, beginning with New York, and aims to establish a partnership with a U.S. carrier or join a broader airline alliance before then to increase access to that market, Foster said.

The airline flies 64 domestic and international routes, with its main hubs in Astana and Almaty.

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