INSIGHT: Qazaq Air harboring ambitious international plans

Qazaq Air is looking to add two more aircraft in order to boost fleet utilization rates The carrier will start flying abroad earlier than prescribed by Kazakhstan's regulations (Qazaq Air)

Kazakhstan’s government-owned carrier Qazaq Air has announced that it is launching its first international route in July 2017. The inaugural international destination in the airline’s network will be between the country’s capital city Almaty and Issyk-Kul Airport in Kyrgyzstan. The twice-weekly flight will be operated with Bombardier Q400 turboprops starting July 7, Forbes Kazakhstan reports, citing the carrier’s board chairman, Blair Pollock.

Kazakh travel agent Kompas, Qazaq Air’s partner on the project, is planning to buy out all tickets for each such flight and bundle them with its package offers to tourists. The airline hopes that the scheme will help it boost revenues: Issyk-Kul airport serves popular resorts on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s eponymous lake.

The airline’s plans for further development of its international network include destinations in the south of Russia and in Central Asia. Pollock also says that the governor of Russia’s Chelyabinsk Region, Boris Dubrovsky, has proposed a route between Astana and Chelyabinsk. This is expected to offer the Russian region’s residents a convenient connection for flights on to Thailand. At present they have to reach the Southeast Asian country via Moscow, making the trip excessively long and illogical.

Earlier, Russian Aviation Insider reported that Qazaq Air was interested in launching flights to Russia’s Tyumen, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Omsk. “Seeing as [Kazakhstan] neighbors Siberia, we could serve this region from Astana,” Pollock notes. Such short-haul flights would connect Siberia with Central Asia via Kazakhstan, while keeping the carrier’s aircraft in the air during the nighttime.

The airline is also considering a feeder role for major hubs. A code-sharing agreement with Kazahstan’s flag carrier Air Astana could be signed once Qazaq Air is satisfied it has built a strong enough route network.

Under the Kazakh air regulations, the operator was not supposed to launch international flights before 2018: any start-up airline in the country is only allowed to do so after it has been present on the domestic market for three years. Qazaq Air appears to have taken advantage of the open skies regime introduced in the run-up to Expo 2017, which Astana is hosting from June 10 to September 10 this year.

The airline launched in the summer of 2015, and has so far remained in the red. The management hopes that introducing international routes will help it drive the profits up. On the other hand, the major stakeholder in the carrier, state-owned fund Samruk-Kazyna, is expecting it to prioritize the domestic network.”

“More aircraft will help us operate the fleet more intensively.” – Blair Pollock, board chairman at Qazaq Air

Qazaq Air hopes to break even by 2020. It will need more aircraft to achieve this. The airline is planning to add at least two airliners to its current fleet of three Bombardier Q400 Next Generation turboprops. “With the three airplanes we have now, any of them going into maintenance results in us losing a third of our passenger traffic,” Pollock explains. “More aircraft will help us operate the fleet more intensively.”

At present the fleet’s average monthly utilization rate does not exceed 180 hours per airframe. Once the carrier has received two additional aircraft, that figure is expected to reach 220 hours. The carrier hopes for the new airliners to come within one year, but has yet to secure the government’s approval. “We expect to have completed the formalities this summer,” Pollock says. “The decision has already been made, because Qazaq Air is included in the Nurly Zhol program [the government’s Road to the Future infrastructure development roadmap through 2019].”

Qazaq Air’s passenger traffic has been growing at a fast pace this year: from January to May it increased by 40%, with the seat load factor exceeding 60%. The airline hopes it will serve its 300,000th passenger before the year is out. Further development plans include a successful IOSA audit in 2018.

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