Face to Face: Michael Whitehead, Air Astana

Michael Whitehead
Michael Whitehead

Air Astana will commence new services from London to Astana, Kazakhstan later this year. With the route opening up a new destination for both business and leisure travel, Travel Daily spoke to the airline’s regional general manager Michael Whitehead and Lola Ospanova to find out what is in store.

 

Why has Air Astana extended its offering to London? 

Michael: Until recently, Air Astana was not permitted to increase beyond our current two services a week from London, while the UK-designated carrier was permitted to operate three times a week to Almaty. This anomaly was removed at the end of August, and so it was natural for Air Astana to wish to increase its frequency to London.

Lola: In addition, it is also time that the capital cities of the two countries are connected by direct flights. The new city of Astana replaced Almaty as the capital city of Kazakhstan on December 10 1997, and since then Astana has grown at a rapid pace. There is a lot of demand from the UK to Astana. The total UK market to Astana is not yet as big as the total UK market to Almaty, but it is catching up fast. Until now, most passengers from the UK have been obliged to travel via Frankfurt, from where we have a daily flight to Astana.

Michael:  Astana also won the right to host Expo 2017, and it is appropriate that a direct service from London should be in place well before 2017.

 

How have you found reception to the news that Air Astana will be flying direct from Astana to London?

Lola: Naturally, all those business travellers who have offices or business in Astana are delighted.  The new direct fight will reduce the travelling time between London and Astana by at least 2 hours 20 minutes.

Michael: But before long, we hope that not only businessmen, but tourists will take the opportunity to stop in Astana as well as in Almaty enroute to those destinations which we serve in East Asia and Central Asia. Both cities boast excellent hotels in all categories, and British tourists will find a lot to impress them and entertain them in both cities. Our new stopover package includes transfers between hotel and airport in chauffeured cars, and an optional city tour. This immediately makes both cities into convenient, interesting and exotic attractions for the individual tourist to visit en route to our other destinations.

Until I worked for Air Astana, I had never visited Kazakhstan. For most British, CIS countries like Kazakhstan were off-limits until the fall of the Soviet Union and a relatively small number of British have visited since then.

But I can assure everyone that both cities have a lot to offer. Almaty is located next to the Tien Shan mountains, snow-capped even in summer. Astana boasts many iconic buildings by famous architects. For individuals heading to Hong Kong, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, not to mention many cities in Central Asia, who are in no hurry but looking for something new and exotic and exciting, I strongly suggest a visit enroute to Almaty or Astana.

For example, we have a return price of GBP544 to HKG, allowing a stopover in Almaty, and a return fare of GBP607 to BJS, allowing a stopover in either Astana or Almaty.

Lola: Full details of the stopover package, including the brochure and the booking form can be accessed on the internet at:

http://www.airastana.com/uk/en/holidays-stopover-packages.aspx.

Our stopover packages are commissionable at 10%. And travel agents should be aware of the many Air Astana competitive fares to Europe allowing a stopover in Almaty or Astana.

 

How important do you think this route is to the airline?

Michael:  It is naturally of importance to the airline that the capital cities of both countries are connected by a direct service, and that Air Astana is the first airline to provide this service.

Lola: Air Astana has two hubs, one in Almaty and one in Astana. The new flights will allow passengers from the UK to use our Astana hub.

 

The new route will increase UK capacity for Air Astana by 50%. Is this growth you anticipate to continue into the future?

Michael:  Yes, the future growth might not be at 50% per year, but we anticipate a steady growth over the coming decade.   One of the obstacles to growth is the stringent procedures for Kazakh citizens to obtain visas for the UK. The number of immigration infringements by Kazakh citizens is negligible, so far as we are aware, and we cannot understand why the UK would want to make visas so difficult for an increasingly prosperous country like Kazakhstan.

 

What are your plans for increasing brand awareness within the UK – especially within a trade context?

Lola:   We shall continue to work closely with the UK travel trade. We expect to continue to advertise to the UK trade on a selective basis. Although Air Astana was started only 11 years ago, we were recognised as a 4-star airline and as the Best Airline in Central Asia and India by Skytrax in 2012, which accolades were repeated in 2013. We are confident Air Astana will be increasingly recognised for the high quality of our service.

 

What connecting flights are available to those flying into Astana?

Michael: From Astana we have connections to many domestic destinations and we also have a good connection to the Russian city of Omsk.

But for those passengers willing to see the city of Astana by taking our stopover package, we have onward flights from Astana to the following cities:  Beijing, Urumchi, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Baku, Orenburg and Tashkent.

Of course, Almaty still offers a much larger choice of onward flights.

 

After David Cameron made his first visit to the country recently, do you anticipate the route to be important in furthering trade relations between the countries?

Lola:  Yes definitely. We expect that a lot of passengers will change their business travelling plans in order to take our direct flights.

Michael:  Because Astana is the capital, many companies active in Kazakhstan have opened offices in Astana, and this trend will continue.   Convenient transport links will increase the attractions of Kazakhstan as a country in which to do business.

 

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