Kazakhstan’s Air Astana offers travellers from Asia and beyond access to the emerging economies of Central Asia as well as the opportunity to traverse this fascinating region en route to Europe. Nick Walton experiences authentic Kazakh hospitality during a flight between Almaty and Hong Kong.
Kazakhstan’s award-winning national carrier Air Astana is proof of what you can accomplish when you put the right team together with the right vision. Launched in 2002, the airline operates 64 routes across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Asia and Europe from its main base in Almaty, and its secondary base at Nursultan’s Nazarbayev International Airport. The carrier recently launched a low-cost carrier, FlyArystan, that will help bolster its regional and domestic networks.
As I was travelling via Almaty from Kyiv to Hong Kong, I had already checked-in for my onward flight so arriving in snowy Almaty I made for the airport’s only business class lounge. This is a space that we have visited and discussed before; while it’s perfectly comfortable, there is an odd relationship between Air Astana, whose business class passengers are given complimentary access to the lounge and the management company. Consequently, everything but instant coffee and water is charged and while the space is quiet and accommodating if you’re looking for peace and quiet, the cafes situated in the main airport concourse prove to be great value and far more interesting.
We board from the lower level’s gate 3, boarding a bus that takes us across the icy apron to the Air Astana 757. Once on board, the crew give us the warm, genuine welcome we have come to expect from this tiny but ambitious airline, and I quickly take my seat, one of 16 business class seats. The cabin is half full for this red-eye flight east, and many of the passengers appear to be pilots who commute from Central Asia to the Far East.
While the plane undergoes a de-icing process, crew serve glasses of champagne and offer menus for the late dinner service. Despite the fact that there are two portions of the most popular choice, the cabin attendant is so engaging none of the passengers seem to mind, which is a refreshing change from the uproar that would have followed on many Asian carriers.
Air Astana has also done a great job on its amenity kits for these flights, collaborating with other pioneering brands to create kits that are truly functional. On my flight to Hong Kong, I was presented with a kit that included La Mer moisturizer, hand cream and lip balm, as well as a comb, pen, eye mask, socks, and shoe shine kit, all housed in a very impressive leather case by Italian brand Bric’s (passengers are also offered a 20% discount on the brand’s leather goods). While I usually leave amenity kits untouched (mainly because of all that single-use plastic) this kit – and especially its leather case – is something I have used many times since.
The flight time for the flight to Hong Kong is relatively short, even for this route, at only 5 hours and 20 minutes, with a departure time just after midnight. It’s one of those flights that are never quite long enough to get a good night’s sleep but also arrives first thing in the morning in Hong Kong, which suits many busy business travellers.
While the business class seats on the Air Astana 757 are chic and comfortable for day flights, they lose a little of their shine on these red-eye flights, when they convert into angled beds that hover just above the cabin floor. While you will definitely be able to snooze in such a position, it does take a little getting used to if you come from Asia where all the airlines offer fully lie-flat beds in business class. There is a sense you’ll slip off the end of the seat while you sleep but comfortable blankets and pillows, as well as the cabin’s indigo mood lighting and the late hour help.
Fortunately, what these seats lack as a bed they, make up for as a seat for dining or work. Seats are well spaced apart and while minimalist they’re very comfortable, with a width of 21-inches, AC ports, individual air nozzles, and plenty of storage.
There’s a steady chop in the air as we depart Almaty, climbing out over the desert of western China, meaning crew lose precious minutes to serve dinner and let passengers sleep but once the meal service starts, the charming crew are efficient and professional. Given the poor dining options at Almaty Airport, all but one of the passengers choose to dine but the crew handle the rush with grace.
Dining on Air Astana is always a treat because it offers a touch of what air travel would have been like back at the birth of the jet age. Nothing is rushed, nothing is overlooked, from fresh, crunchy salads that put those of their competitors to shame, to soups with housemade croutons and well-proportioned mains matched with boutique wines.
As we flew east over the empty landscape of China, dinner started with a vodka and soda, using Kazakhstan’s own Snow Queen vodka. This was followed by an appetizer of smoked duck breast with apricot and walnut cream cheese, Baba Ghanoush, and pomegranate gems, a dish that really taps into the country’s rich multi-cultural make up, one that’s as linked to Asia and Europe as it is to the Middle East and Russia. The appetizer was paired with a marinated beetroot and carrot salad, and warm green pea soup with paprika garlic croutons.
For mains, there was the option of tender chicken biryani garnished with fried onion and roasted cashews, with mint yoghurt on the side; slow-cooked Oriental beef with egg noodles, baked vegetables and steamed asparagus; char-grilled dorada fillet with a citrus-cream sauce, and sautéed Mediterranean vegetables; and eggplant parmigiana with tomato basil sauce. It was the biryani that proved popular but my beef and noodles was elegantly presented, the beef well-seasoned and perfectly cooked. Dessert included a choice of spiced carrot and ginger cake, seasonal fruit or triple chocolate mousse but I decided to have a glass of Royal Reserve Saperavi Chelti, a red wine from Georgia, instead.
One thing I love about Air Astana is that service is never rushed and there is never the sense that crew are struggling to keep up. I’ve regularly seen this on major carriers, even when the cabin isn’t full, but Air Astana crew have a finesse that they apply to every task, even if it’s as simple as welcoming guests onboard. At the same time, crew are proactive and attentive; you rarely have to reach for the call button as there’s always a crew member nearby anticipating your request. Smaller carriers like Air Astana need to differentiate themselves if they are to compete with the big players, and crisp, efficient, genuine and consistent service has helped Air Astana stand apart and forge its own loyal customer base.
The seats on the 757 don’t have a built-in entertainment system so after takeoff crew handed out headphones and tablets pre-loaded with a host of movies and television shows. However, as many passengers were looking to get as much sleep as they could, after their meal most took naps rather than watched movies.
What We Loved
The red-eye flight from Almaty to Hong Kong, which I have done several times, can be a little rough, with passengers resembling zombies by the time they board, but it does allow for the most efficient use of time as you travel west to east, as well as a full day in Hong Kong when you arrive.
What We Didn’t
The business class seat on the 757 can be a little tricky to sleep in and we hope the airline rolls out the flat-bed it offers on its 767 to its flights to Hong Kong.
Whether you’re travelling back from Central Asia or passing through the region from Europe, Air Astana offers a contemporary business class experience that’s based on world-class, consistent service that clearly taps into traditional Kazakh hospitality.
Air Astana Hong Kong to Almaty return in business class from US$2,700 per person.