Air Astana began flying to Kyiv in March 2013. It carried 50,000 passengers to and from Ukraine during its first year of operation. This figure reached 113,000 at the end of 2018. Most of all, the Kazakh airline is happy with the dynamics of its transit passenger volume to/from Ukraine. Out of 113,000 travelers that flew to/from Ukraine through Kazakhstan, 53,000 were transit passengers, which represents an increase of 19% compared with 2017.

In an interview with the CFTS portal, Air Astana’s Vice President for Sales and Marketing Richard Ledger discusses the next Ukrainian airport to which the airline plans to fly in addition to the Boryspil airport, the possibility of the FlyArystan low-cost airline flying to Ukraine in the future, and replenishment of both Kazakh airlines’ aircraft fleets.

Richard, you worked for airlines such as Singapore Airlines and Royal Brunei. How did Air Astana manage to lure you?

Air Astana was established in 2003. I joined the airline in 2006, when Peter Foster, who also previously worked at Royal Brunei, became the president. He telephoned me and said that this was a completely new airline and that there were many opportunities for development. Of course, everyone was surprised that I was leaving for a virtually unknown airline, but the opportunity to build something from scratch was much more interesting than working based on manuals that had already been written by someone.

Regarding development, you said earlier that the company planned to focus on increasing the frequencies of its existing flights. Which destinations are you interested in potentially?

The airline is currently evaluating the possibility of launching flights to Japan. Many media outlets are actively circulating this news, and we confirm that participation in this market has commercial potential and strategic significance.

There is a large flow of transit passengers from Kyiv and Tbilisi to India.

Out of the existing destinations, India is very interesting not only because we carry tourists from India to Kazakhstan or from Kazakhstan to India, but also because we provide transit traffic – large flows from Kyiv and Tbilisi – for neighboring countries. Therefore, there are great opportunities for development of this destination.

How many passengers fly from Ukraine to India on Air Astana? You also stated today that there is Ukrainian passenger traffic to Sydney, where you cooperate with Cathay Pacific. How many Ukrainians do you transport there?

Of course, we know all these indicators, but for us it is confidential information. I can only say that we are one of the major players on the Ukraine-India route but a very small player on the route between Ukraine and Australia.

Those transfer passengers that fly Air Astana through Kyiv, to which destination do they fly most often?

Most of our transit passengers are on flights between Kazakhstan and Kyiv, followed by China, India, Uzbekistan, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Accordingly, Ukrainian air carriers carry passengers from Europe to Kazakhstan via Kyiv.

Ukrainian passenger traffic accounts for 3% of the airline’s total passenger traffic. What is Ukraine’s share of Air Astana’s revenue?

Our unaudited revenue was USD 840 million in 2018. Ukraine’s share of the airline’s revenue corresponds to the region’s share of the airline’s total passenger traffic.

The market of transcontinental flights between Europe and Asia is currently dominated by large Middle Eastern airlines. How do you plan to compete with them?

Great question. Of course, it is difficult for us to compete with Emirates or Qatar, which, for example, operate several flights per day on the London-Bangkok route. Therefore, we have a different approach – we divide all our transit passengers into three categories. The first category consists of the passengers that we transport on regional routes. From Urumqi to Tashkent, for example. The second category consists of the passengers transferring from regional flights to long-haul flights. For example, from Urumqi to Paris via Kazakhstan. We have very strong positions in these two categories. The third category is transcontinental flights. Here we connect two long-haul flights and compete with the major carriers on price. Air Astana has one of the lowest ASK fares.

In Ukraine, the airline currently flies only to Kyiv. Are you potentially considering other cities?

Of course. Lviv is the most obvious candidate. Perhaps charter flights, in the launch of which two tour operators are already interested. However, I repeat, flights must be commercially viable. We are currently in the process of discussions. We will meet with tour operators this week to discuss the possibility of launching flights this or next year.

Lviv is the most obvious candidate. Perhaps charter flights, in the launch of which two tour operators are already showing interest.

Will they be seasonal or year-round flights?

It will depend on the tour operators.

What about flights from Astana or Almaty?

Here, everything will also depend on the customer, that is, tour operators.

According to you, the FlyArystan low-cost airline that Air Astana is launching will perform only domestic flights. However, for example, the Azerbaijani low-cost airline Buta Airways flies to Ukraine. Is there a possibility that you could also think about it in 2-3 years?

FlyArystan is only just beginning operations, and it will perform domestic flights. Of course, we realize that it will be a Eurasian low-cost airline. It will not fly to Ukraine in the short term, but never say never. It is important to understand that a significant proportion of the traffic between Kazakhstan and Ukraine is, nevertheless, not only point-to-point traffic but also transit traffic, which is increasing every year and is provided by Air Astana.

How many airplanes does FlyArystan currently have?

We are launching flights with two Airbus A320s (180 seats), which will be subsequently increased to four. We plan to increase the number to 15 by 2022.

Air Astana will take delivery of four additional Embraer 190-E2 airplanes in 2019. Is further replenishment of the aircraft fleet expected this year?

We plan to upgrade the fleet gradually. The Embraer 190-E2 will replace the Embraer 190 eventually. What we are still expecting is upgrade of the existing Boeing 757, which we will withdraw from our fleet this year and replace with the Airbus A321neo. The Airbus A321neo will have 16 business-class and 150 economy-class seats. The airplanes will be equipped with personalized entertainment systems and Mood Lighting.

Air Astana has Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer airplanes. Have you considered unifying your fleet?

A number of successful companies – such as Ryanair and EasyJet – have unified fleets. However, in our case, such a "mixed" fleet allows us to be flexible on different types of flights. For example, we launched flights to Dushanbe, Bishkek, and Baku on Embraer airplanes. This allows us to operate small aircraft on these routes and introduce aircraft that are more spacious when the routes become profitable. We can maneuver and change aircraft, depending on increase of passenger traffic and demand for one route or another.

You recently added an aircraft in a livery bearing the image of a snow leopard. Do you plan to develop this tradition by painting other aircraft in special liveries? Will such a plane fly to Kyiv?

One of the reasons why we painted the aircraft this way is to draw the world’s attention to the issue of disappearance of snow leopards not only in Kazakhstan (in the Tien Shan mountains), but throughout the world. There is currently no plan to paint other airplanes, but we are not excluding this in the future. Regarding the possibility of the aircraft with the snow leopard livery flying to Kyiv, it all depends on operational feasibility and rotation.