Air Astana would weigh plans for the new route as well as more flights between Almaty and HCMC by the end of this year, as Hanoi is a great city, Foster told the Daily before the airline hosted a dinner reception for representatives of airlines and travel firms here last Friday to promote the Almaty-HCMC service.

Earlier this year, Air Astana commenced Almaty-HCMC service via Bangkok with nine hours of flying and non-stop services between the two cities with seven hours. The airline uses a Boeing B757 configured in 16 Business-class and 150 Economy-class seats.

Foster said occupancy on Air Astana’s Almaty-HCMC flights is 85% on average. He credited the encouraging load factor to the fact that Vietnam was popular for travelers from Kazakhstan and Russia, who often chose warm coastal sites in central Vietnam, including Nha Trang, Danang and Hue to escape freezing weather in their home countries in winter.

According to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office, Russians alone accounted for more than 54,000 out of the over 1.21 million in the first two months this year, a whopping rise of 38% versus the same period last year.

Foster said a slew of travelers from Kazakhstan came to Vietnam on the flights of Vietnam Airlines and other carriers from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and many more were expected in the future. Therefore, opportunities abound for Air Astana.

“Air Astana continues to grow in strength and reputation as Central Asia’s leading carrier, with the development of our Asian network being a very high priority… HCMC is destined to become our latest exciting destination from the region,” Foster said.

He said in a statement that he was confident that with a range of attractions, HCMC would prove popular with tourists from Kazakhstan and neighboring countries.

Luu Thanh Binh, deputy director general of the Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam (CAAV), told the dinner reception that the country’s expanding aviation market would provide a catalyst for foreign airlines. He added the governing aviation body would help Air Astana grow in this market.

Binh also hailed Air Astana on the launch of the Almaty-HCMC service, which came only a few months after transport officials of the two countries signed an air services agreement during President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Kazakhstan in September 2012.

CAAV said the pact established a milestone for aviation ties between Vietnam and Kazakhstan, and created a framework for the airlines of the two countries to fly direct.

Nguyen Anh Minh, managing director of Vietway, the general sales agent of Air Astana in Vietnam, said fares from Almaty to HCMC started from US$590, inclusive of taxes, airport fees and charges. Vietway will help Vietnamese travelers obtain visa to visit Kazakhstan as well, Minh noted.

Air Astana is a joint venture between Kazakhstan’s national wealth fund Samruk Kazyna and BAE Systems, with the first holding a 51% stake. The carrier currently operates an aircraft fleet comprising of two Boeing B767s, five B757s, 11 Airbus A320s and six Embraer 190 planes for more than 50 international and domestic services from the hubs of Almaty, Astana and Atyrau.

By Binh Nguyen - The Saigon Times Daily - March 6, 2013