Winner of the 2019 Travellers Choice Regional Airline Asia award, Air Astana is one of the fastest-growing airlines in Central Asia. Chris Long profiles.

Some of the basic numbers from Kazakhstan are surprising. It is the largest landlocked country in the world, and the ninth largest country by surface area. It is extremely rich in natural resources; not only does it have impressive reserves of critical minerals – uranium, chromium, lead, copper, etc, it also has the 11th largest reserves of oil and gas. All this for a population of 18 million in a territory that stretches across Central Asia from Europe to China.

That scale, and the Central Asia location, illustrate the need and benefit for its own airline, to cover both internal and international transport links. Air Astana was incorporated in late 2001 by the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan (51%) and BAE Systems PLC (49%). The success of this venture has been such that, with an ever-increasing demand for travel from a population who have recently discovered air transport, a further boost is coming from a new low-cost carrier, FlyArystan, which will initially operate under the same AOC, and will primarily serve the “New East” market.

The fleet build up to equip both these airlines continues. Air Astana currently operates 33 aircraft, with more arriving from July 2019, in a mix of aircraft types. The Boeing 767 and 757 currently operate the longer routes. Airbus is represented by a mix of the A320 family, with the NEO versions presently being delivered. Embraer E-Jets also play their part, with the latest E2 variants already operating. As with most airline fleets, these are in a state of flux as the newer aircraft come into the fleets – the Boeing 757 is expected to complete its service in the near future and will be replaced by the Airbus A321LR. The underlying philosophy is to continue the controlled expansion as the market grows. That careful approach is an interesting model for other more recent airline start-ups.

2,750-Strong Operations Team

Air Astana has around 450 pilots, 80% of whom are from the home country (half of them come from the ab initio programme – see below). The cabin crews are made up of 1500 people in the younger age group – typically 20-25 years of age. The Engineering and Maintenance team numbers some 800, of whom 300 are engineers.

Home-Grown Pilots

The local National Aviation Authority (NAA) is the Civil Aviation Committee (CAC). It has responsibility for the oversight of commercial aviation, and largely looks to the EASA system as the model framework for the national regulation in all disciplines.

There is a gentle build up in the numbers of pilots and, as Captain Fillipos Siakkas, director of Operational Training says, this is against the background of huge global demand for crews. Given the desire to provide local pilots with a career, Air Astana has a very strong ab initio pilot training programme. The students are selected using a process which includes the COMPASS aptitude test, as well as the CPP personality test, both of which have been developed by EPST in the Netherlands, together with interviews, group exercises and a session on an MFTD.

The MFTD work is not to teach them to fly, but primarily to assess the rate of assimilation – can they follow a steep learning curve? Attracting recruits is a challenge in a world where the local population is not really aware of the option to become a pilot – it seems too remote to many. Plans are being laid to start much more active education and promotion in the broader community. Air Astana seeks to recruit about 40 ab initio students a year, but it can be difficult to find that number of suitable students from the 400 applicants. A significant problem here is the level of Aviation English, so supportive guidance can be provided by the airline. The selected trainees benefit from a system which sponsors 100% of the training and accommodation costs against a bonding agreement. The training is then carried out at either Flight Training Europe (Spain), the Atlantic Flight Training Academy (Ireland) or at Patria (Finland). The training is for the EASA ATPL Integrated course, with JOC/MCC. One observation is that the 20-hour MCC was considered to be insufficient, and now the students complete 32 hours of JOC/MCC, with improved results. MPL is being considered/developed as a future solution.

Air Astana has sidestepped the significant capital costs of creating a self-contained training system. At the company headquarters in Almaty, Kazakhstan, there are three Aerosim (now L3 Commercial Training) MFTDs, where modules of the recurrent training, such as CRM and Annual Refresher can be carried out in a practical and effective way. The type rating and simulator work is carried out by third parties, always at an EASA ATO, either with the Flight Simulation Company (FSC), based in Amsterdam, with Airbus in Toulouse, and with FlightSafety International in Paris for the Embraer fleet.

There are 50 instructors, most of whom are local, with just 10% on the team being expats. These instructors are all volunteers and are then carefully selected. Coming from the airline itself, they have a clearly established track record of personality and performance, so they then complete the EASA TRI course, either in Toulouse with Airbus, or with FSC in Amsterdam, followed by a one-week Air Astana standardisation course. A number of FFS sessions, when they instruct under supervision, and then line instruction under supervision completes the training and the attainment of the TRI qualification. To emphasise the importance of CRM as an integrated attribute in operations, all instructors are also formally qualified as CRM instructors.

CRM has been fully embraced for some time. Whilst in the early days it was largely seen as “teaching people to be nice to each other” – according to Capt. Siakkas, that has more than matured into exploration of information on workload management, effective use of automation and leadership in the context of line operations. Once the initial CRM has been carried out in the specialist groups, recurrent sessions are joint, with cabin and flight deck crews working through practical scenarios on a three-year cycle. This year, for instance, the exercise is a detailed look at roles and responsibilities during an explosive decompression.

Evidence Based Training and Assessment (EBTA) principles have been embedded for some time, including the demanding instructor training, but the formal structure for that will be implemented from October 2019.

The whole training structure has resulted in a high success rate for command upgrades, which start with First Officers who have a minimum of 3,500 hours and usually take command on the same type. A command development program, which begins at 2,000 hours, is about to be implemented. A possible unique feature is the follow up for new captains. There is Post-Command Training, in which new commanders come together after six months on the line, and join in group workshops, to discuss with their peers how things are going – what it is like operating alone. In this training there is also a no-jeopardy, unscored sim session, the first half of which is to run through a known scenario, followed by an unknown scenario, and the second half of which caters for the individual’s choice of exercise. This non-regulatory training has been very well received by that population group, who appreciate the chance to talk things through with their direct peers. In addition, “Leading for Command” has been launched, which focuses on soft skills in the more behavioural aspects of leadership, commercial understanding, and customer service from the flight deck.

Cabin Crew Training “Soul”

Nazym Katabassova is responsible for the cabin crew training. The annual intake is around 280-300 trainees, all recruited locally, and these are trained to EASA standards. She is pleased that successful independent audits have been carried out by Authorities of Aruba and the UK CAA. The national rules stipulate 128 hours of mandatory cabin crew initial course, which includes safety and emergency procedures (SEP), CRM, aviation security, first aid and dangerous goods. The theory is carried out in Almaty, and first aid and disruptive passenger training features here. Practical training on door trainers is undertaken in Frankfurt with Condor, who operate the same fleets of B757/B767 and Airbus A321. Embraer door trainers are leased from TFC-Simulatoren und Technik GmbH and installed at Condor training facilities.

Promotion to In Flight Supervisor (Senior Cabin Crew) can follow for selected volunteers, and they are coached in mandatory requirements – for instance in pre-flight briefing and preparing for emergency landings, and then non-regulatory soft skills of leadership and teamwork. The CRM training is scenario-based, using real events to keep it interesting and relevant, and to show that it can happen to you.

Nazym emphasises that the training is not simply about facts, but the trainer must see the effects of the training and teach to understand – must “give soul” to the process.

Air Astana has a growing maintenance operation servicing its in-house fleet and third parties alike. Image credit: Air Astana.
Air Astana has a growing maintenance operation servicing its in-house fleet and third parties alike. Image credit: Air Astana.

MTX Training from Ab Initio

Operating from three bases, Almaty, Nur-Sultan and Atyrau, there are supporting maintenance teams at each place. The evolution of training capacity is driven by EASA requirements, and EASA Part 145, 147 and type rating training for Airbus A320/Boeing 757/767 and Embraer E2 were all approved by EASA with oversight from the Irish CAA.

The success of this training pattern has attracted third parties to train here as well.

Alexander Zinke, Senior Manager, Maintenance Training and Standards, reveals that the primary source of maintenance engineers was the local aviation academy. “Ab initio training is completed under Part 66, with some 15 places each year for 400 applicants, who have to satisfy High School grades in English, maths and physics. The theory course lasts for 16 months and the second group will start in September 2019. The ab initio gets more popular as we have already 600 applicants for the second group. Practical experience and basic hand skills training is carried out at both Nur-Sultan and Almaty, with further practical and on-the-job training experience in the Air Astana hangars.”

Training is planned to progress through to at least the age of 21, the minimum age for a licence awarded under EASA.

A Model Start Up

The careful start up and progressive training options could be a model for new entrants to the airline business. A safety culture has to be built in right from the start, and there is no better place to begin than with the new hires as they start their careers. The considered way that Air Astana has planned and is now carrying out a gradual expansion in capability and route structure makes for an impressive example.

Published in CAT issue 4/2019