Foster kicks around in Kazakhstan

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By Mark Pilling in London

Peter Foster has served in plenty of countries during his 17-year airline career – most in south-east Asia, several in Europe, Qatar and Australia – but he never expected to deplane in Kazakhstan

So, when the Cathay Pacific network, an unofficial head-hunting network that managers of the Hong Kong-based carriers are hooked in to, brought Foster in contact with Air Astana in mid-2005 it came as something of a surprise to the then chief executive of Royal Brunei Airlines.

The Kazakhstani carrier, which was only created four years ago in this central Asian and former Russian state, was seeking a new leader and made contact with Foster. He laughs when asked what tempted him about the job: “At first nothing at all. I laughed it out of court. But then people said that Kazakhstan was growing fast. A couple of friends who had worked around the region said Almaty was a great place.”

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Foster also talked to senior executives at BAE Systems, which was one of the founders of Air Astana and is still a 49% shareholder in the carrier. “They were very persuasive,” he says. As Foster looked deeper into the company he found a go ahead and ambitious organisation and he was hooked.

Foster now has six months at the helm of Air Astana since starting in October. When it was established in 2002 the brief from the Kazakhstan government, which owns 51% of the carrier, was to establish an airline run on international standards. It now employs 1,300 people and operates 12 aircraft. “It is a very lean organisation and has been set up very effectively,” says Foster. The management team is mostly made up of ex-patriate executives.

His brief is to maintain and enhance its safety position and to profitably grow. “However quickly we grow we have to make sure our roots go deep,” says Foster.

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And with the Kazakhstan economy growing at 9% per year Air Astana is preparing to grow too. The country’s rise is being fuelled primarily by oil, gas and other minerals while the banking and services sector is growing strongly too.

The carrier’s network expansion is leading it to take three Airbus A320s from CIT Aerospace on operating lease this year, says Foster, with another two to follow. This will augment its Boeing 737s that operate on domestic and regional short-haul routes. Its 757s fly to Bangkok, Beijing, New Delhi, Frankfurt, Istanbul, London and Seoul. Five Fokker 50 turboprops operate on domestic services.

In the meantime Air Astana is preparing a request for proposals for aircraft to replace its narrowbody and widebody fleets. It will place an order this year for three of each, with an equal number of options for delivery between 2007 and 2012, says Foster. It will evaluate offers for A320/330/350s and Boeing 737/767/787s. “By the end of 2009 we will end up with a single fleet type,” he says.

The carrier will show another profit in 2005 when its final figures are released, says Foster. It made an operating profit of $18 million on revenues of $198 million in 2004. “We’ve got good routes with traffic being driven by market growth and we get good utilization out of our aircraft.” At present there are no plans to change the ownership structure of the company, although a public offering is possible at some stage.

As the airline grows it will gain a higher profile. “Air Astana is virtually unknown, but that is going to change,” he says.

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