As Kazakhstan’s national carrier Air Astana awaits delivery of its delayed A321LRs to replace its to-be-retired Boeing 757-200s, having become the second operator after Norway’s Wideroe to take delivery of the first of its five Embraer E-190 E2s, it is moving on its sizeable plans to develop its regionally footprint.
The first E2 will enter commercial service from Astana to Almaty on Wednesday and four more examples are set to join its fleet next year. The E2s are part of the airline’s short-/medium-haul fleet renewal and growth to support expansion from its Astana and Almaty hubs into Central Asia, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and China. All five E2s are leased from AerCap and will replace older first generation E190s in the fleet.
With the leases of its nine E190s expiring by 2021, “we are keen to get into the E2 program,” said Air Astana president and CEO Peter Foster, indicating the airline would look at an additional four E2s on top of the five ordered.
“Given the [E-190-E2’s] extra [range envelope [of 1,000 km] over the E-190s, we might do quite a lot with it…It will be significantly possible to open routes to points that are far more distant than we would have imagined. Now with a five-and-a-half-hour option, we can fly to small points in China and Eastern Europe if we wanted to,” noted Foster.
Kazakhstan’s strategic location between Russia and China puts it in a position to tap regional routes particularly being a major partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—it includes aviation—that looks to enhance connectivity between Asia, Africa, and Europe. China’s new action plan for aviation, released last week by Civil Aviation Administration of China, that targets a near doubling of the country's airports to 450 by 2035 may further fuel Air Astana’s ambition to fly to China.
“China remains a significant opportunity for Kazakhstan and Air Astana,” Richard Ledger, vice president, sales and marketing, told AIN. In addition, the international Financial Center launched this year in Astana to make Kazakhstan a financial hub in the region will “position Air Astana to take advantage of corporate business,” he said.
“An opportunity for discretional travel for Chinese citizens also exists,” Ledger pointed out. An initiative for transiting Chinese and Indians flying with Air Astana to a third country to enjoy a 72-hour transit visa-free regime that was to expire this year has been extended for subsequent years, he said. Air Astana’s Stopover packages start from $1 a night.
In addition to the E2, Air Astana received two new Airbus A321neo and one A320neo this year as part of an order for six A320neos, seven A321neos, and four A321LRs. Four A320s from its current 34-aircraft fleet will transfer to its recently formed budget carrier FlyArystan. A request for proposal is out to both Airbus and Boeing as part of the LCC’s foreseen expansion, Foster said. “We think it is right to evaluate both OEMs at the…inception of the carrier…The [decision] will conclude in the first quarter of 2019.” FlyArystan is scheduled to commence domestic operations mid-2019 and fly to international regional routes in its second year.