Safi Flies the Flag for Afghan Air Transport Independence

 - September 19, 2011, 10:15 AM
The rebuilding of Afghanistan’s economy will depend on air transport, and independent carrier Safi Airways is trying to take the lead in expanding international services with, among other types, a second Airbus A320. (Photo: Safi Airways)

Outsiders might assume that war is the biggest worry for Afghan carrier Safi Airways. But, according to Lloyd Carswell, Safi’s chief commercial officer, strong demand for its flights has presented the biggest challenge, largely due to constraints posed by inadequate capacity and facilities at Kabul Airport.

Safi Airways also faces a ban from European airspace due to the European Union’s blacklisting of all Afghan carriers because of the shortcomings of the country’s safety regulation. However, officials of the privately owned airline remain confident Safi will soon find a solution. Within the next few weeks, they expect to decide whether to resume services to Europe through an ACMI lease (covering aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance provided by a partner) or by operating under the AOC of another carrier.

The Safi family trading group launched the airline in early 2007 and soon operated a fleet of four Boeing 737s and a 767-200ER. It hit a roadblock in November 2010 when the EU instituted its ban. The fallout from the move triggered a change in management and, after cutting as much as 85 percent of its costs, Safi turned a profit in May of this year, with services connecting Kabul with Dubai and the Indian capital Delhi. It plans to add Abu Dhabi to the network starting December 15.

Further plans at Safi call for the resumption of services to Frankfurt, Germany, from April 2012, after the airline takes delivery of an A330-200. Also due to arrive in the first quarter of 2012, a second A320 would enable the launch of services to countries such as Pakistan, Nepal and Tajikistan. By the fourth quarter of 2012, Safi’s fleet should grow further with another A330 and one more A320, which it could deploy on services to cities such as Hong Kong and Moscow.

Plans to develop services within Afghanistan remain stalled by inadequate airport infrastructure, mainly at Kabul, where just 10 check-in desks reside. “We would love to see a hub-and-spoke model connecting Kandahar, Kabul, Harat and Mazar-e-Sharif, maybe using [Bombardier] Q400s, but we need to get everything fixed on the international side first,” said Carswell.

Financially, strong demand for its high-yield services has buoyed Safi’s balance sheet. It stands as the only Afghan carrier to offer business class and it plans to further upgrade cabin service and launch a frequent flier program.