The need to go to Almaty (ALA) in Kazakhstan again to work on a project with Air Astana meant an opportunity to try out the airline first-hand, particularly as this time the airline offered a free ticket (albeit sadly in Y-class). As Air Astana, the national airline of Kazakhstan, is not particularly well known or travelled by aviation enthusiasts, I thought a trip report might be in order. Sorry, no photos though...
Flight: KC902 LHR-ALA
Date: 10th August
Class: Y, seat 29F
STD: 21:15 ATD: 21:40
STA: 09:15 ATA: 09:15
Air Astana use Terminal 4 at LHR, and two hours before the flight the very limited number of check-in desks contracted by the airline each had huge queues in front of them. Having failed to make much progress towards the front of the queue in the next 30 minutes, I decided to try to online check-in (OLCI) on my iPhone – which worked – and thus was able to move over to the “fast bag drop” desk which had no queue – strangely, that desk didn’t seem to be working airport check-ins when no on-line customers were waiting. My “initiative” in doing OLCI raised questions from other passengers as to how I'd jumped the queue, followed by a number of them scrambling for their own internet enabled phones! Whilst OLCI allocated me one of the few open middle seats, the fast bag drop desk was able to move me to a window seat in exit row 29 – result!
P4-FAS, a Boeing 757-2G5 with winglets, was waiting at gate 25 – almost the furthest from the main departure lounge. Boarding was well underway by the time I reached the gate 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure, and there were no queues as those passengers who had already made it to the gate were already onboard. Despite OLCI indicating that almost every seat was occupied (except a few random middles), when the doors were shut I found myself in a row with no one occupying the other two seats. Push back for departure to Almaty was around 25 minutes late awaiting late passengers arriving at the gate and almost certainly a result of the slow check-in processing mentioned previously.
Décor in the 1989 built, former LTU 757, was pleasant enough if a little worn in places. All of the seats were leather covered. Occupying a full-size door exit row, my legroom was pretty much unlimited, but the pitch in other rows looked reasonable, certainly much better than charter airlines. IFE on the aeroplane consisted of multi-channel audio and overhead screens for video (no seat-back PTVs). Cabin announcements were in the local language, and English, although the English announcements lacked some clarity. Headsets (two pin plug, in ear phones) were distributed, as were [surprisingly] amenity kits in a little pouch that contained eye shades, sock sand toothbrush and paste. Boiled fruit sweets were also distributed prior to take off and landing. Small cshions were on each seat, and blankets were available.
A while after departure (the flight deck seemed to keep the cabin crew strapped in for quite some time, despite the smooth climb to cruise), a drinks service was provided – wine poured from full sized bottles, a limited selection of spirits, beer (in 500ml cans), and hot and cold soft drinks were available. The meal service followed and whilst I declined, the offer appeared to be an appitiser, a choice of chicken or beef, and a desert – fairly standard airline fare, presented in the usual economy class manner on a single tray. Cabin service was efficient but maybe a little sterile - possibly due to the language differences, as the cabin crew didn't appear to have a huge command of English. The overhead IFE showed a selection of short features (comedy, etc), followed by a film (which looked like “The Hurt Locker”) – business class get portable video devices pre-loaded with a selection of movies and shorts. After the movie, the overhead screens showed a flight map with in-flight progress and the projected arrival time. The audio channels featured a typical selection of music, including a channel of local Kazak music.
The flight routing was out towards Clacton, thence towards Amsterdam and very close to Moscow before routing further over Russia towards the huge country of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is pretty much on the scale of Europe, but has only around 16 million residents). Almaty, the commercial centre of the country, is +5 hours time variation from the UK, and is on a broadly similar longditude to Delhi and Novisibirsk. The country is landlocked and bounded by Russia and China (amongst others), with the capital Astana being in "Siberia" to all intents and purposes. The country is rich in minerals and oil and for the most part has not been corrupted by dictatorship (although the police are apparently happy to accept "bribes" to ignore minor misdemenours from time to time, I'm told). Almaty has warm and mainly dry summers but harsh winters with temperatures dropping towards -40C at times. ALA's terminal is small but modern and built in a western style, and is clean and pleasant to use, with the airport being about 30 minutes driving time from the city on often congested roads.
For a flight scheduled to take 6 hours and 45 minutes (actual on the day around 6 hours and 35 minutes) and landing at 9:15 local time, it was surprising that a snack / breakfast was not offered prior to arrival. Decent over the vast and very barren land around Almaty (there's some large mountains just beyond ALA that are snow-capped year round, making the final approach quite picturesque) was followed by a gentle landing on the huge new main runway (Almaty was once known as Alma Ata, the destination for the revenue flights of the TU-144 "Concordski", but these used the old runway that now appears to be disused), followed by a backtrack to the terminal. Arrival in Almaty was predictably, given the late departure and projected flight duration, slightly late, but one of the four contact gates with jetways at the very modern airport terminal was available. Aside from a selection of Air Astana’s modern fleet, the airport's vast ramps were occupied by a significant number of Antonovs, Ilyushin IL-62s and -86s (and a beautiful looking Kazak registered IL-18 UP-I1804), Tupolev TU-134s and -154s, Yak-40s and -42s,and a good assortment of executive jets and military transport aircraft. The soviet aeroplanes were adorned with the liveries of some very unrecognisable airlines, parked alongside the derelicts from the collapsed past Kazak national airline Air Kazakstan. There were also an Evergreen 747F, an Air Bridge Cargo 744F and a Lufthansa MD-11F present as well as a Kazak registered DC-10 with a red cheatline.
Immigration was fairly straight forward and rapid, albeit that a pre-travel visa is required for UK residents visiting the country. After that, the bags were already on the carousel and the driver from the hotel was waiting outside ready to take me into town. Almaty is vibrant, modern city not at all in the image of old “communist-block” cities, where the locals drive Toyatas and Fords rather than Ladas and Zils, the major western hotel chains have properties, and English is fairly well understood. The local currency (KZT - Tenge, 240-ish to the pound) is widely used - Kazakhstan is not a false dollar economy, unlike some other states.
Flight: KC901 ALA-LHR
Date: 14th August
Class: J, seat 2A
STD: 12:30 ATD: 12:50
STA: 15:15 ATA: 15:50
Having completed my work in Almaty, it was time to fly home again. This time (maybe because I’d done a good job at Air Astana?), they offered to upgrade me to business class and so the report is worth continuing…
The international check-in desks at ALA are “protected” by a customs check-point, and passengers for Air Astana flight KC901 were only allowed through to the check-in desks two hours before the flight was due to depart – having arrived at the airport slightly before that time (the fault of the hotel that suggested I be at the airport “at least two hours prior to departure”!). When the check-in desks were opened and the passengers let through, check-in was very efficient and quick – at least for business class passengers, although at this early stage of the check-in process there were only a few passengers waiting for the economy desks too. My baggage was despatched into the depths of the airport appropriately “priority” tagged (although I sometimes question the benefit of such tagging, as it seems they are sometimes treated rather disdainfully, especially on arrival at LHR).
Outbound immigration was relatively perfunctory (photo taken on a web-cam type camera a la USA, passport stamped), and security efficient – laptop separate, belts off being the mirroring the usual elsewhere these days. ALA’s modern terminal is not huge and the international departure lounge would be quite packed should there be two 757 loads waiting to depart. However, at 10:45 the next departure was the London flight at 12:30 and the following flight was an Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi at 14:30 and therefore passenger numbers were not too much of an issue. The international departure area has a single fairly small and simple common-use business class lounge, a large duty free shop, a small café charging rather extortionate prices (equivalent of almost GBP£2.50 for a bottle of coke, whereas the vending machine land side charge around GBP£0.40), and views of the ramp and runway through two layers of glass. Aside from the assorted Soviet hardware dumped around the ramps, several of Air Astana’s Airbus, Boeings and Fokkers were parked around the ramp, and again the glorious IL-18 UP-I1804 was seen performing a rather noisy start and smoky departure.
Two Air Astana 757s sat on the ramp – P4-FAS and P4-MAS. Hoping for the latter, the London flight was sadly allocated to the former so it was to be the same aeroplane as I flew out on. I was quite surprised to see that the baggage was loaded in pieces, rather than containerised. Boarding for KC901 was called around 20 minutes before scheduled departure time, again through one of the four jetway served contact gates in front of the terminal. The boarding process was somewhat disorganised – no distinction was made for business class passengers – and very slow due to the close scrutiny each passenger’s passport and boarding was given at the top of the jetway.
Turning left at the L2 door gave sight gave first sight of a 20-seat business class cabin. Seats were again covered in blue leather at a fair pitch, with in seat audio but again no PTVs. Air Astana’s business class seats are of a mechanical cradle type, with a good recline but by no means offering a lay-flat option. As with the economy cabin, the interior was clean but fairly well worn. Champagne (fizzy wine?) was offered, in addition to water and juices, prior to departure and boiled fruit sweets were also distributed just as pushback occurred. Doors closed and departure were around twenty minutes late, seemingly primarily due to the convoluted boarding process the resulted in passengers still coming down the jetway some fifteen minutes after STD. Nineteen of the twenty business class seats were occupied. A short taxi to ALA’s long runway and an immediate takeoff got KC901 airborne around 25 minutes after STD.
Climbing into clear skies, this time the cabin crew were let loose fairly soon after takeoff, although again passengers were kept strapped in until top-of-climb. Amenity packs were again offered, these being somewhat better than those offered in economy class and included, with shades, socks, toothbrush and paste, ear plugs, safety razor, lip balm etc. A larger pillow was on each seat, and the crew offered duvets and blankets to those passengers who wanted to sleep. As there are no PTVs on Air Astana’s 757s, portable digital players and in-ear headsets were offered to business class passengers, the players being pre-loaded with around 15 new release and classic movies, a selection of TV shorts (that were also played on the overhead monitors), an increased audio selection over that offered through the seat, and several games. The digital players had plenty of battery power for the entire flight, and could be hung over a strap on the seat in front so that they didn’t encroach on table-space.
Menus were brought around as pre-dinner drinks were offered, with the selection including a good range of spirits, wines, beer and soft drinks. Meal service was accomplished onto linen cloths with each course being served separately – an appetiser of mozzarella and picked herring (nice) was followed by a salad with balsamic dressing (good); then spicy pumpkin soup (nice - only the second time I’ve been offered soup in flight – the first being on Delta first class over 20 years ago); a choice of chicken stuffed with goats cheese and tomato (far too hot and somewhat over cooked), beef, or stuffed trout; desert; cheese; and finally tea or coffee. On the whole, the meal service was a fairly good offer and was served by very efficient and friendly staff who continued to be attentive thorughout the flight.
The flight progressed overhead Moscow and onwards through eastern Europe and northern Germany, the Netherlands and thence over the UK to Clacton VOR. The digital players provided plenty of entertainment, the cabin crew offered further drinks on a regular basis, the seats were comfortable and the flight smooth. Passengers were again strapped in immediately at the top of the decent despite clear skies, and again I was surprised no second snack meal service was offered prior to landing, and despite the generous lunch service I think this is something of an ommission on a flight of over seven hours. Boiled sweets were the only concession to pre-arrival
Some seven hours after departing ALA, things were looking good for an on-time arrival despite the delayed departure, and this continued right up to the point where KC901 was put into the BPK hold for four holds after which a rather extended downwind for Heathrow’s runway 09L put the flight on the ground about 20 minutes behind scheduled arrival time. A rather extended taxi over to terminal 4, with an extended wait to cross runway 09R, meant that the flight blocked on around 40 minutes behind schedule. However, as the flight was parked on one of the gates closest to the immigration facilities, quick deplaning and a very short walk put Air Astana’s passengers into the very congested immigration hall within very short order. Having used IRIS (for which there was no queue), I was in the baggage hall ten minutes before the bags, but surprisingly the “priority” bags did seem to be the first up on the carousel.
Air Astana are making money despite the economic downturn that has affected their home market as well as the rest of their network, and already have a fairly modern fleet of Boeing 757s, 767s, Airbus A320s, A321s and Fokker 50s, with 787s planned into the fleet past the middle of the decade. As someone who remembers the old eastern block airlines, my feeling is that Air Astana have gone a long way to bring up-to-date air travel to their part of the former CIS states – unsurprising really, given that BAe was involved in the formation of the airline and there are a number of ex-pats involved in running the airline today. Their product is comparable with many western airlines – better than some – and whilst lacking slightly in finesse when compared to the best of the West and Far Eastern carriers, Air Astana is none the less an airline that anyone could travel on and have quite an acceptable experience.
[Edited 2010-08-16 02:45:41]