Air Astana considers Qatar as potential future partner

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Kazakhstan's flag-carrier, Air Astana, indicates that it could partner with Qatar Airways following its tie-up with Middle Eastern operator Etihad Airways.

Air Astana already codeshares with Abu Dhabi-based Etihad, but president Peter Foster says: "[Qatar has] made no secret of the fact that they're interested in Kazakhstan and Qatar's network is different to Etihad's. We'd be pleased to work with them."

Foster says: "We're getting a lot of feed from [Etihad's] African and Middle Eastern network and we are increasingly providing it with feed on our Central Asian network. It's a very effective co-operation and a good relationship."

While Foster says that Air Astana's strategy is to develop partnerships, it does not want to restrict itself by joining an alliance.

"We're looking at more partnerships...but at this stage of our development we don't believe in tying our hands to one alliance," he says. "We believe in bilateral partnerships that are route- and market-specific."

Turkish budget carrier Pegasus Airlines has indicated that it could pursue a Kazakh venture along the lines of that proposed for Kyrgyzstan. But Foster is unconcerned that a budget operator could steal market share from Air Astana. He points out that Sharjah-based low-cost carrier Air Arabia has been operating in Kazakhstan for "many years".

"It's hard to say what elements of the low-cost model could threaten us," he says. "We could take out business-class seats, decrease the seat pitch, remove all the food and stop serving any wine or vodka tomorrow if we wanted to. But those are only very small and minor parts of the low-cost model."

Foster says that budget airlines can only operate with "certain elements of infrastructure available, with a certain route structure".

"You need secondary airports in major cities, we don't have any [in Kazakhstan]," he adds. "You need a charging mechanism that recognises a low-cost airline, we don't have any of that.

"You need to be able to turn aircraft around in 20 minutes. Well, you can't do that here in this country, the airports will not allow you to turn aircraft round in less than an hour."

Foster also says that low-cost airlines require a "very strong culture of e-commerce and online retail" and, despite the fact that Air Astana was the first company to start e-commerce in Kazakhstan, the Internet still accounts for only 10% of its sales.

"The other part of the low-cost model is that you need to have a common fleet - which is all very well if you've got a route network whereby the range of those routes can be met by one fleet type," he adds. "But that's impossible in Kazakhstan, it's a huge country."

Foster also argues that a rival would struggle to achieve better fleet and crew utilisation than Air Astana. "We get 12.5h flying out of our A320 fleet. We're now getting about 10h out of our Embraer fleet. These are good numbers."