Astana Aspires To Be Central Asian Hub

Astana Aspires To Be Central Asian Hub

Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, has made big strides in its aspiration to turn what was once known as “White Grave” into Central Asia’s newest aviation hub.

Adding impetus to the effort is an upgrade of the Astana international airport at a cost of more than 60 billion tenge, or roughly 6.4 billion baht.

The upgrade of the airport serving the capital Astana, previously called Akmola, or white grave in Kazakh, is a strategic investment by the oil-rich nation under an economic transformation plan following the collapse in world petroleum prices.

The transformation is part of “Nurly Zhol” (Bright Path), a new economic policy that calls for massive state investment in infrastructure over the next several years announced in November 2014 by President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The policy is seen as preventive measures needed to help steer the economy towards sustainable growth in the context of the modern, global economic and geopolitical challenges, including the fall in oil prices.

When the Astana airport was first constructed in 2006, the Kazakhstani government did not envisage a role beyond serving the capital, the airport’s chairman Paolo Ricciotti recalled.

“But the game has completely changed, Astana will become an international air hub and an upgrade is needed,” the Italian executive said.

The upgrade was also driven by the fact that the existing facility had reached its capacity limit.

The upgrade of the airport, located about 14 kilometres from the wind-swept city centre of Astana, is to bring its total handling capacity to 8.2 million passenger a year from 3.6 million presently.

The project is being carried by a Swiss-Albanian firm Mabco Construction on a turnkey basis, centred around a new terminal and facility improvement.

The new 47,000-square-metre terminal will see six more jet bridges, raising the total number to 12.

The terminal is scheduled to be ready by April next year, ahead of the Expo 2017, scheduled to take place between June 10 and Sept 10 in Astana. The hope is that the international exposition, which is expected to draw 3-5 million visitors, would put Astana on the world’s aviation hub map, Mr Ricciotti said.

The growth in traffic would be such that the airport’s upgraded passenger handling capacity will be reached over the next six to seven years, he said.

With some “creativity”, Astana airport will overshadow Almaty airport, Kazakhstan’s largest international airport, as the country’s main air hub, able to handle up to 10 million passengers annually.

Key to the aspiration to turn Astana airport into such a hub is to attract international airlines — an exercise which Mr Ricciotti admitted has never been actively pursued.

Both Astana and Almaty airports are state run and connected with Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport via Air Astana’s regular flights.

He pointed out that Astana is seen largely by international airlines as an airport for point-to-point flights, rather than as a world-class international hub such as Dubai in the UAE with significant international passenger transfer volumes.

“We will never compete with the likes of Dubai, but we will be able to compete for East-West traffic flow, taking passengers from key hubs such as Incheon (South Korea) to secondary cities in Central Asian region,” he said.

There is a plan to build a new runway parallel to the existing one at Astana airport, but only after passenger traffic volumes reach 20 million a year.

There have been talks among Kazakh authorities about building a new airport serving Astana when the existing facility becomes overcrowded, well into the future.

According to the Astana airport’s chairman, there are space constraints preventing further expansion in the future — the airport’s parameters are confined by military reserved area and a government greenery project.

“This current airport can easily take us to 2030, so there’s no urgency in looking for a new site,” Mr Ricciotti said.