Air Astana was another airline in my bucket list for a while. I was mighty impressed with their efforts to grow their hub traffic and how they have effectively used multiple aircraft in their fleet to start, expand and sustain a route. The airline recently started flights from Astana to Delhi and has upgraded the Almaty Delhi route to A321.
The bookings were done by our Travel Agent friends with two PNRs, one each for onward and return journey since we wanted to avail the stopover holidays package of Air Astana (Don’t Miss: Kazakhstan in $1)
Armed with printouts of tickets, boarding card and stopover holidays confirmation, we entered Terminal 3 at Delhi at 0845 hours. The Flight Information Display System (FIDS) listed Air Astana at row L and a sizable crowd was already there in front of 4 check-in counters, 1 each for Business class and baggage drop and two for economy. It took 20 minutes for us to reach the counter and placing our bags on the conveyer belt; I handed over the whole bunch of confirmations and asked for the procedure to get the 72-hour transit visa. The friendly staff clicked a picture of our confirmation and passport details to send it to their counterparts in Almaty. I was interested to know the passenger mix and it mainly comprised transit traffic and groups.
I have always been impressed with Immigration officers in Delhi. Unmistakably they search for a page which has three stamps and then put the fourth one there instead of using up a fresh page. Security was a nightmare. It took exceptionally long with limited staff and extra security on account of Independence Day. This left us with little time for breakfast and we rushed through to gate 11B where boarding was to start at 1040 for an 1135 departure.
The A321neo (first for me) was docked to the aerobridge. The airline has a modest but growing fleet of 33 aircraft with 25 more on order. The airline carried 4.2 million passengers last year and has been ranked SKYTRAX 4-star airline since 2010.
Boarding was announced at 1050 and row wise orderly boarding commenced. The aircraft was less than a month old and had a refreshing feel. Newspapers and magazines on the aerobridge before boarding, pleasant mood lighting in the aircraft, water bottle, pillow, earphones and amenity kit on the seat along with comfortable seats and seat-back IFE. The first impression was impressive! The crew soon came with toffees as all the passengers settled in and it looked a full flight in Economy without a few seats empty in Business.
We were well past scheduled departure time, when we pushed back at 1230 – a delay of 55 minutes. A long taxi to runway two eight and we were off on our way to Almaty. We crossed over in the Pakistani air space near waypoint SULOM. Service had started by then and I was exploring the IFE. Sadly, the map view did not work but the IFE had a fair selection of music, movies, documentaries and TV shows.
Service comprised drinks run (Wine/Juices/water/cold drinks) and meal options included a vegetarian one or lamb. The meal comprised Plain Yogurt, a tasty salad, dry bread, cheese cube, rice/pulov, daal (Lenthil preparation) and paneer (Cottage cheese). This was followed by another drinks run and when passengers asked for more alcohol, they were told its over! For the duration of the flight, this was the last service run. The staff for this flight was curt and dismissive and bordered on being rude.
The views outside were breathtaking. The path took us south west of Lahore, North east of Sargodha crossing over into Afghan airspace near waypoint LAJAK and overflying Jalalabad, entering Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan – flying just west of Bishkek and entering Kazakhstan. And we had some beautiful landscape on the right side with mountains and lakes along with snow-capped peaks.
We landed on runway zero-five R and parked at one of the remote bays. Almaty airport looked like a mini junkyard of soviet era aircraft, none of them in flying condition. There was ambiguity on clicking pictures on the tarmac with police personal around and trying to tell something in local language. I did click a few pictures. We were quickly bussed to the terminal and that was the last “quick” thing which happened.
There were boards for quick-transfers and Air Astana staff guided them to Transfers desk. The passengers were connecting to Tbilisi, Bishkek, Kiev, Moscow, Dushanbe, St. Petersburg and surprisingly Kuala Lumpur!
The Air Astana staff then gave us a printout of list of Indians availing transit visa on that day. Data privacy hasn’t reached Almaty yet. The list contained names, passport number, Inbound and Outbound flight details of all Indians! We were handed with two copies, one to show while entering and another on the way out.
The four counters saw immigration move at snail’s pace and it took over two hours for 150+ passengers to clear immigration. By the time we were out with the bags, our transport was missing and had to struggle to get to the hotel. The city is very nice and I would write about it later. But the road to the hotel started with dense foliage on both sides with smell of forest.
We had to Uber our way on the day of departure after some great time in Almaty. The Stopover holidays assigned driver did not show up at the designated time.
Check-in, followed by Immigration and security was a breeze. The Security Hold Area (SHA) is very small with 4 gates and has limited view of the apron. It also has only two cafeterias, one toilet block and one duty free. It was sustainable for few hours and we enjoyed the coffee at one of the cafeterias.
Boarding was on-time but the wait was as long as the first flight. 20 minutes past departure time, it was announced that the delay is on account of loading of cargo. We took two more flights, from Tashkent to Astana on the Embraer E-190 and Astana to Delhi on Airbus A320. All flights except the first were without seatback IFE and the flights to and from Tashkent did not have amenity kits.
I was impressed with Air Astana. A relatively newer airline, operating in an environment where getting feeder traffic is a challenge and expanding steadily. I particularly liked their safety demonstration video and the product overall. All four flights were on-time, two despite the delay in departure. Not the best of alcohol on offer or duty free on sale on-board but that did not affect my experience.
I flew the A321neo, A320 and E-190 and they had comparable product experience. A repeat flight? If they are competitive, then why not! No reason to say no!