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Flight paths for Air Astana, Kazakhstan's national airline

Having just flown to the USA and back since Thanksgiving (which explains the absence of new posts in the last couple weeks), I have been pondering air travel to and from Kazakhstan; there are a few things about it that seem odd to me as someone who has spent a lot of time on airplanes from a very young age. First, there are a surprisingly large number of direct flights from Europe to Kazakhstan, including flights to secondary cities; second, these flights are all but empty; third, international flights arrive and depart, apparently without exception, in the middle of the night. This blog post is an attempt to explain each of these oddities.

That what I have noticed are in fact “oddities” was at least partially confirmed for me by the newest episode of a [US] National Public Radio podcast Planet Money about the airline business. It is worth listening to this podcast as the travel-heavy holiday season approaches: it might provide you a source of zen during your next purchase of an airline ticket. In short, though, the NPR journalists discuss the significance of American Airlines’s recent bankruptcy. It the last of the “legacy carriers” to do so, suggesting either that the classic airlines are obsolete or that commercial aviation is simply not a profitable business (or both). The podcast concludes that we can expect airlines to further consolidate services and routes in the near future.

It is therefore notable that several major airlines, including Air Astana, Asiana, BMI (British Midlands International), KLM, Lufthansa and Turkish, offer daily direct services to Kazakhstan from London Heathrow, Seoul Incheon, Amsterdam Schipol, Frankfurt and Istanbul, respectively. Remember, Kazakhstan is only a country of 16 million, and many of those citizens cannot afford to fly. I cannot imagine this is sufficiently profitable route to support the open competition of all these airlines.

My hunch is somewhat borne out by the fact that the flights are almost empty. I’ve now flown three times from either the US or Europe to Kazakhstan and back, and every time the flights are no more than half full. Not that I’m complaining – because at 6 foot 2 inches I enjoy the extra room to unfold – but I’ve always been next to an unoccupied place or been able to move into a pair of empty seats.

Moreover, my half-empty flights are those to Almaty, at roughly 2 million people the largest city in Kazakhstan. I noticed most recently in Amsterdam that there are direct flights also to Atyrau, a city on the oil-rich Caspian coast – and therein lies the key to unlocking this riddle.

Air Astana, as Kazakhstan’s state-owned airline, flies direct to Europe most likely as a matter of policy and public relations. That Turkish Air and Russian airlines fly from Istanbul and Moscow make sense in terms of political and business relations. Turkey is among the largest non-post-Soviet sources of foreign direct investment in Kazakhstan. Similarly, the European carriers presence in even the second-tier cities of Kazakhstan is, I’d hazard to guess, similarly a matter of public relations and investment, but particularly investment in oil. By this theory, Royal Dutch Shell and BP (perhaps along with their respective governments) subsidize or at least encourage uneconomic flights (e.g. empty flights from Amsterdam to Atyrau) in order to maintain good government relations or sweeten deals.

I don’t have data or other evidence (or know of a way to get either) to substantiate this claim or allegation, but I know at least a few of my readers are interested in transport and logistics, so if anyone can proffer a better explanation, I’d be most grateful.

This leaves, however, one unsolved mystery: Why do flights to and from Almaty International Airport (ALA) arrive and depart in the middle of the night? When I say “middle of the night,” I should note, I also mean it. My recent return flight arrived at 3.00am, and there was an announcement for the departing Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt while I was waiting in baggage claim. I’ve never been anywhere else where this is the norm: in Hong Kong, at least, even long international flights arrive in the evening, usually just in time for dinner.

Nor is the difference trivial. The effect of the flight schedule to Almaty is also to worsen the symptoms of jet-lag. I arrived at 3.00am, exhausted. I got home and was in bed by 5.00am, but instead of waking up at 9 as planned and suffering through the day for the sake of resetting my clock, I was out cold until about 5.00pm and woke up just in time to watch the sun set. You can imagine then that I was up all night. Lest you are concerned, by the way, I’m still adjusting, but my condition is improving.

The only explanation I’ve heard for the dead-of-night flights is that it is somehow cheaper for the city or whatever government body overseas the airport to run it at night. Does this make sense? Can anyone offer up a reasonable explanation? They’re certainly not saving on electricity costs.