An Interview with Air Astana’s UK senior Regional Manager: Richard Ledger
Air Astana is Kazakhstan’s national airline and the largest in Central Asia. They operate a number of routes from the Country’s capital and Kazakhstan’s largest city to destinations such as Seoul and London. Richard Ledger is the airline’s senior regional manager at its UK base. Join me as I put some questions to the man himself…
How are you lessening the environmental impact of Air Astana’s aircraft?
“Reducing our environmental impact and developing initiatives to avoid or reduce man-made
climate change sits at the heart of Air Astana’s environmental management approach, alongside
ensuring that we provide for the safety and health of our employees, customers, and contractors.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a major contributor to climate change, are a byproduct of air
travel. At Air Astana, however, we are taking measures to minimize our GHG emissions and
reduce our carbon footprint. We are investing in a fleet of modern and fuel-efficient aircraft that
emits less carbon: our aircraft’s average age is 4.9 years, making us one of the youngest
fleets globally. But we go one step further, ensuring that all our pilots are trained in fuel-efficient
flying, like single-engine taxis for example, which further helps to reduce emissions.
In 2021, we continued with our plans to transfer our in-flight products to biodegradable materials:
switching from plastic to wood for our drink stirrers and toothpicks; substituting onboard plastic
cups with recyclable plastic ones. We have also changed the packaging of our amenity kits to
bamboo and kraft paper, and are gradually replacing items in the kits with more eco-friendly
Air Astana’s Up-cycling for the Future is a recently launched project for creatively recycling used
aircraft parts. Decommissioned spares from Boeing 767 and Airbus A320 aircraft, including
nose cones, luggage compartment lids, seat frames, and other cabin furnishings, have been
transformed into a unique collection of furniture and interior decorations.”
What lessons has Air Astana learned from the Pandemic?
“It goes without saying that the pandemic had a catastrophic impact on airlines globally. Some
airlines, including Air Astana, have however emerged from the crisis in significantly leaner and
more efficient shape than before. The aviation playbook calls for an immediate reduction in costs
in such a crisis, which we did. But where some airlines dismissed staff and cut the quality of the
service offering, Air Astana looked at it in a different way.
Staff were placed on ‘down-time’ for a short period, but aside from a few foreign contract pilots, all staff were retained. It was clear to us that empathetic staffing was to be pivotal in any recovery. Similarly, many airlines cut the level of service and specifically catering onboard. We didn’t, and in many cases upgraded it, and our customers have told us the importance of that decision.
Air Astana was agile during the period of the pandemic. Our B767-300ER were converted to
semi-freighters to carry PPE and medical supplies at the outset; and rapidly converted back in
time for when passenger demand returned to the market. We adopted a highly entrepreneurial
approach, building business cases for new routes and launching them in a matter of weeks on
occasions. Driven by where travel restrictions were weakest, and pent up demand would be
strongest, we opened new routes to destinations where we had never operated to before such
as the Maldives, Montenegro, Egypt, Sri-Lanka and Cyprus to name a few.
We do recognize that the strength of our domestic market within Kazakhstan, and the
stimulation of this market by the creation of our LCC brand FlyArystan, were fortunate in timing
and provided for a constant revenue base whilst some countries worldwide slowly re-opened
Importantly, Air Astana maintained its financial independence throughout the whole period of the
crisis. Where most of the world’s airlines received state aid in one form or other, Air Astana
neither requested it nor benefited from it. In fact, since the initial funding injected into the company 20 year ago (US$17 million) all of the company’s growth has been self-financed either
through operating revenues generated, or on the open finance market. With the company now
standing at as a billion-dollar turnover company, we are incredibly proud of these achievements.”
Is the Russo-Ukrainian war affecting your business and if so how?
“Yes and the impacts are sizable. Our initial concentration was towards the safety our staff
based in Kyiv and the few thousand Kazakh nationals living and working in Ukraine. To this
extent, on the 22 February 2022, just days before the outbreak of hostilities, our President and
CEO, Peter Foster, traveled to Ukraine, to personally organize repatriation to Kazakhstan via a
pseudo hub set up in Katowice, Poland. Our repatriation expertise, honed during the pandemic,
meant that we operated numerous flights and effectively achieved our objections.
Russia was Air Astana’s largest overseas market before the conflict. The raft of sanctions
bought in by the US and Europe in the wake of the invasion required a full and complete audit of
our Russian suppliers to ensure compliance. This squeeze on potential Russian suppliers and
insurance concerns contributed to our decision to cease all operations between Kazakhstan and Russia in Spring 2022. We also do not use Russian airspace very much for the same
reasons; and as such now detour our European routes further south over the Caucus, Turkey
and Central Europe. This detour influences the economic performance of these flights; although
a tech-stop in Aktau on the route between Almaty and London does now open the opportunity to
British adventure tourists to stop in western-Kazakhstan and visit the wonderful region of
Air Astana reported 2022 to be its best-ever year, what do you thing attributed to such success?
“Capacity management has been fundamental to the airlines success in 2022. Where capacity
has been in excess of demand, this has been optimized; where strong demand has materialized
additional capacity has been deployed. These general management principles, along with cost
control and process digitization, are very much at the core of the airline.
Our LCC Brand, FlyArystan has been particularly buoyant in this post-pandemic period growing
366% in 2022, to 3.2 million passengers. It’s transformed mobility within Kazakhstan with its
innovative approach and is now one of the fastest growing airlines on the planet.
We have been able to identify relevant socio-economic trends, like remote working (digital
nomads), and leveraged this to create our Lifestyle Airline brand; inspiring our customers to
travel and re-balance their personal lives working remotely from overseas. This positioning, in
addition to our highly regarded in-flight product and service, has seen summer routes to Antalya
extended year round for example.
A consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that Russian carriers are restricted from
operating to Europe. For obvious reasons Ukraine International Airlines are not currently operating. So,
from this European perspective, some of the hitherto competitive pressure has eased.
Following the Russian army mobilization announcement in September 2022, strong demand
was particularly evident across our domestic and international network. During 2022 flights
between China and Kazakhstan remained under frequency restriction. This provided robust
yields and has paved the way to frequency increases in 2023. The re-opening of flights to India
at the end of 2021, and further frequency increases, has provided critical feed to the
In Late 2022, Air Astana announced the lease of 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft, why was this decision made?
“The B787-9 is a direct replacement for our current wide-bodied fleet of three B767-300ER.
Larger in capacity, the B787-9 will allow for market development on the routes currently
operated by the B767-300ER, when it arrives in Q1 2025. The longer range does open the
possibility of new routes not currently on the B767-300ER/A321LR network.”
And Finally, what can we see in the near future for Air Astana?
“We learned the value of Customer Experience, and the loyalty this drives when we get it right,
during the pandemic. We see Customer Experience as the next competitive battleground
between airlines and those airlines that invest in this will reap the rewards in future years. Our
Training Academy, developed 4 years back, will be pivotal in this role. We also recognize that
our consumer facing digital offering needs to be more intuitive and resources are being invested
in this field.”
Cover Image credit: Air Astana
Airlines of the World
An interview with Helvetic Airways CEO, Tobias Pogorevc
Helvetic Airways is a Swiss airline which operates its fleet of Embraer aircraft to destinations such as Greek islands and the Egyptian Red sea coast from their hubs in Switzerland. Their CEO, Tobias Pogorevc, has been in charge of the company since 2018 and overseen major developments such as the introduction of the Embraer E195 E2 and E190 E2 to their fleet. I put some questions to the man himself about the environment and the pandemic.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to the aviation industry at the moment?
One of the biggest challenges in the entire aviation industry is the staff situation. The pandemic
disrupted the entire aviation ecosystem and the situation is still very tense in the personnel area – both
on the ground and in the air. Helvetic Airways was able to counteract the natural fluctuation in the
cabin through early recruitment measures. In addition, as of the beginning of 2023, Helvetic Airways
has significantly expanded its existing and very popular part-time models for cabin crews, and now
offers various innovative models with “Fly your way”, in which cabin attendants can determine their
own assignments on a weekly, monthly or annual basis. Today, we employ over 240 flight attendants
and senior flight attendants in the cabin crew – more than ever before in the history of Helvetic
In the cockpit, we benefit from the good and long-standing cooperation with our sister company
Horizon Swiss Flight Academy. From this pool, we were able to recruit 24 pilots this year.
Another challenge relates to supply chains, from carpet suppliers to engine manufacturers. This will
keep the industry busy for a long time to come.
How are you lessening the impact of Helvetic’s aircraft?
Helvetic Airways has renewed almost its entire fleet between 2019 and 2021 and now has 12 state-of-
the-art Embraer E2s – eight E190-E2s with 110 seats and four E195-E2s with 134 seats – and four
Embraer E190s. Helvetic Airways thus operates one of the most modern regional jet fleets in Europe
and the most modern fleet in Switzerland. The Embraer-E2 is currently the most environmentally
friendly regional aircraft on the market. Compared to the E1, the E190-E2 consumes 20 to 23% less
fuel per seat on European routes and the E195-E2 up to 30% less. Our own measured values are
even higher than Embraer’s factory specifications.
The E2 also sets new standards in terms of noise emissions, impressing in particular with its low noise
levels both inside the cabin and outside. The noise diagrams for departures from Zurich Airport show:
The noise contour of the Embraer E195-E2 is 28% lower than for the Airbus A319 and 60% lower than
for the Airbus A320. Particularly for airports near densely populated areas, the ability to reduce the
noise impact on people is an important factor.
What lessons did you learn from the pandemic?
In aviation, crisis situations are regularly trained for, but no one was prepared for a global crisis like the
Corona pandemic. We kept all our crews current during the pandemic so that we would be ready when
business picked up again. In retrospect, that was absolutely the right decision. But then the restart
happened faster than expected. On the one hand, we all had to get back to the “old normal” as quickly
as possible; on the other hand, the pandemic was not yet over – a balancing act that placed enormous
demands on the entire industry.
The pandemic showed us that even when things are at a standstill, you always have to keep moving.
As an airline with lean structures, we have the opportunity to implement new ideas and innovations
quickly, which proved its worth during the restart after the pandemic.
How is the Russo-Ukrainian war affecting Helvetic Airways’ business?
The Ukraine war and the fates associated with it are terrible but have no immediate impact on us as a
regional airline from an operational point of view. Our routes do not pass over Russian or Ukrainian
territory, which may not be flown over at present. What we do feel, however, are the indirect effects of
the war, for example on the fuel prices.
You have been CEO of the company since 2018, what has been the biggest change you have seen in the company since you became in charge?
On the one hand, as a small, private company, the fleet renewal to an E2 fleet has been very busy for
us. It is something special that we, as a niche player, can rely on the most modern fleet. But this is
only possible thanks to the financial strength of our owner, which got us through the Covid crisis even
without government aid. Today, we are financially strong, with no liabilities.
On the other hand, there was the biggest difference in the area of human resources: the needs that
applied in 2018 are outdated today. Today, we need to offer innovative and flexible working models to
recruit the best young talent. Work-life balance, diversity, inclusion must not just be buzzwords, they
must be lived.
Helvetic airways operates a fleet solely made up of Embraer aircraft, why was the decision made to do this?
Before unifying to an all Embraer fleet, Helvetic Airways operated Fokker100 aircraft, an Airbus A319
and Embraer E1 aircraft, four of which are still in our fleet today. The cooperation with Embraer was
excellent from the beginning and the development of the E2 series progressed well also due to our
experience and input from Switzerland. So the decision was also obvious to carry out the planned fleet
renewal in 2019 to 2021 with the new Embraer E2 models. The Embraer E2 is an aircraft of the latest
generation and therefore the right aircraft for the future. The E2 consumes significantly less fuel than
the E1 and, especially in times of high kerosene prices, it makes economic sense to operate an
aircraft that saves 20 to 30% fuel on certain routes at high load factors.
Another key reason for choosing the E2 jet was the commonalities, which is particularly advantageous
in the areas of training and maintenance.
All our pilots are certified for both the E1 and the E2, and the maintenance in our hangar is also
certified for both types of aircraft. We operate the aircraft, we maintain it and we have our own flight
school, the Horizon Swiss Flight Academy, where we train our pilots and engineers – all from Zurich.
In other words, we have specialists for all areas: training, operations and maintenance – in effect we
have become the Embraer competence center in Europe.
And Finally, what can we see in the near future for Helvetic airways?
First and foremost, our goal is to continue to offer our partners, customers and passengers reliable
flight operations with top service. In doing so, we will continue to rely on our three main pillars of
wetlease, charter and scheduled flights. Furthermore, we want to remain a good and modern employer
for our employees. Due to our manageable size, we remain agile and score with innovation and a
family atmosphere with flat hierarchies. We will continue to promote this spirit. From April, for example,
the first “Helvetic shared apartments” will be ready for occupancy – apartments rented by Helvetic
Airways and sublet to employees who do not have their main place of residence in Zurich. These
colleagues should immediately feel at home in our Helvetic family!
Cover image credit: Flikr
Interview with PLAY airlines CEO, Birgir Jonsson
PLAY airlines is the second largest airline in Iceland and its main low-cost carrier. They offer flights to destinations including the Canary Islands and a large amount places on the east coast of the US and Canada. I caught up with their CEO, Mr. Birgir Jonsson, to see how things were going in the wake of the pandemic…
How have you been reducing the environmental impact of your aircraft?
We’re committed to reducing our carbon emissions, which is why we follow regulations like the EU and UK Emissions Trading System and the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. We’ve also complied with Norway’s and France’s national SAF mandates. We’re always looking for new ways to be more sustainable and reduce our impact on the environment.
What lessons have you learned from the pandemic?
The pandemic taught us how important ancillary revenue is for our airline, and we’ve worked hard to increase it to build a strong foundation for our company. We’re also dedicated to finding new ways to serve our passengers while prioritizing their safety and well-being.
A lot of your company was founded on the basis of the collapse of Wow air in 2019; what aspects of Wow air still remain at PLAY?
While our transatlantic route network remains, everything else is new and different. We have a new fleet of Airbus A320/321neo narrowbody aircraft, and we’re a publicly listed company with nearly 4,000 shareholders. Our mission is to achieve sustainable growth with flights between the east coast of North America and Europe, using Iceland as a hub.
What do you see to be the biggest challenge to the aviation industry at the moment?
The aviation industry is facing several challenges, including surging fuel prices and intense competition. At PLAY, we’re tackling these challenges by seeking innovative digital solutions that help us reduce costs and offer lower prices to our passengers.
Is the Russo-Ukrainian war affecting your business and if so how?
The war has led to higher fuel prices, which has affected the cost of operating our flights. However, we don’t operate routes that are directly impacted by the conflict.
You announced that February was a record month in sales for you. Do you think this is enough to put you close to Icelandair in the foreseeable future?
While we’re thrilled with our record-breaking sales in February, we recognize that Icelandair is an established company with decades of experience in the industry. Our strategy is working, but we know that it will take time and effort to achieve our goals.
And finally, what can we see in the near future for PLAY airlines?
We’re always looking for ways to improve our services and make travel more affordable for our passengers. We’re focused on increasing our ancillary revenue and expanding our route network to serve more destinations. Our goal is to help our passengers pay less and PLAY more!
Cover image credit: Conde Nast Traveller.
Interview with AirBaltic’s CEO: Mr. Martin Gauss
AirBaltic is one of Europe’s key airlines and the flag carrier of Latvia, also serving destinations for Estonia and Lithuania. The company carries millions of passengers per year and is one of the largest operators of the Airbus A220. I put some questions to the CEO of AirBaltic: Mr. Martin Gauss.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to the aviation industry at the moment?
“Currently, the largest challenges in the aviation industry are supply chain issues, rising fuel and other costs, as well as fluctuating exchange rates. In addition, the ongoing war in Ukraine continues to impact airBaltic and its flight operations – due to the closer airspace, the airline cannot perform flights to and from Russia and Ukraine, therefore losing its biggest transfer traffic to the home base in Riga. “
airBaltic recently decided to equip its fleet with SpaceX’s starlight connectivity system; why was this decision made?
“Having the most modern and environmentally friendly aircraft in the airline’s fleet, it was the next logical step for airBaltic to implement the most modern available inflight internet solution on this fleet. airBaltic is excited to improve its service and to soon become the first airline in Europe to launch high-speed, unlimited, and free-of-charge satellite internet on board its flights in Europe and beyond.”
What are you doing to lessen the environmental impact of airBaltic’s aircraft?
“Since May 2022, airBaltic operates a single-type fleet of solely Airbus A220-300 aircraft, and it is currently the greenest commercial aircraft in the skies. The aircraft is considerably quieter – with a four times smaller noise footprint. Moreover, it is the first aircraft to have a transparent declaration of the life-cycle environmental impact, helping to reduce CO2 and NOX emissions by 20% and 50% respectively.”
What lessons did airBaltic learn from the pandemic?
“The main lesson from the pandemic for airBaltic and most likely the aviation industry as a whole is the need to be agile and flexible when facing unprecedented challenges. “
With airBaltic being one of the largest operators of the A220, including having a fleet solely made up of them, why was the decision made to do this instead of using a multi-aircraft fleet?
“Having a single type fleet, benefits airBaltic in many different ways. In addition to this aircraft type being the greenest commercial aircraft available, it also benefits the airline in terms of crew training and aircraft maintenance. airBaltic is a proud ambassador of the A220-300 and over the years, the aircraft has performed beyond the company’s expectations, delivering better overall performance, fuel efficiency, and convenience for both passengers and the staff. “
airBaltic has recently been operating flights to Ukraine to help with efforts there, such as delivering mail, is this kind of work important to the company?
“Since April 2022, airBaltic has been providing cargo operations from Ukraine by organizing a multimodal mail transportation system in cooperation with Ukrposhta, the national postal service of Ukraine. Until September of last year, airBaltic has already carried a total weight of over 400 tonnes of mail from Ukraine to various destinations.
airBaltic is pleased and honored that the airline and Ukrposhta have become very important partners. Such work is important for airBaltic, and the airline continues to do its utmost to help the Ukrainian nation, and airBaltic’s hearts and thoughts are with the brave Ukrainian people.”
And finally, what can we see in the near future for airBaltic?
“This year, airBaltic will launch 18 new destinations from Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius. This is the largest amount of destinations which airline has ever announced at the same time. airBaltic continues to be the largest carrier in the Baltics, providing vital connectivity to and from the region.
In addition, airBaltic will soon equip its entire fleet with Starlink in-flight internet, developed by SpaceX. Every passenger will benefit from complimentary, high-speed internet during airBaltic flights.”
Cover Image Credit: simpleflying.com
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