How can one of the most profitable airlines in the world thrive without a maintenance hangar in a country where it is not unusual for temperatures to fall to -45F (-42.7C)? The answer, says John Wainwright, senior vice president of engineering at Air Astana, is “with difficulty.”
The rapid success of the airline has surprised many. Since launching as a joint venture between Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna (a 51% stakeholder) and BAE Systems (49%) in 2002, the country’s primary carrier has posted an annual loss just once.
It has grown from operating three leased Boeing 737s in 2002 to a fleet of 30 aircraft: nine Embraer E-190s, one Airbus A319, eight A320s, four A321s, five Boeing 757s and three Boeing 767s. It also has three Boeing 787-800s on order, with options for another eight, with the first due in 2019.
Wainwright, formerly of Royal Brunei (as is current CEO Peter Foster), is leading the project to build a maintenance facility at Astana International Airport for the airline. The hangars are essential, he says, due to Kazakhstan’s fierce winters.
“It’s amazing we’ve managed to go this long without a hangar because it only takes 10 min. without heating for everything on the airplane to freeze solid. Pipes will burst and we won’t know anything about it until they melt and we have water flowing into the electrical systems. It’s physically impossible to do any kind of maintenance in those conditions,” says Wainwright.
With no hangar facilities in Astana, the airline has had to fly its aircraft back to Almaty in the south of the country for maintenance, but even then it doesn’t have a hangar that can hold its Boeing fleet, so it has to borrow one.
“The first phase of the maintenance facility will initially consist of just the one hangar, with associated workshops and offices behind it,” says Wainwright. “That will be big enough to accommodate a large aircraft, such as a 767 or 787, or one of our Airbuses and an Embraer.
“The second and third phases will be the same as the first, so in the end we will have three identical hangars, joined together, with offices behind. By consolidating a lot of our infrastructure into this new facility, our Boeing maintenance will be migrated in its entirety to Astana in the future.
“Even then, we will still have a lot of land—something like 15 hectares (37 acres)—and we’ll be looking at ways we can develop it,” he says, noting that the corporate offices could move there as well.
Architects are finishing the hangar plans and the airline hopes construction will start by year-end, with completion due in late 2015. The next-phase start date is more fluid, however.
“The original plan was to build one hangar a year, but with the Kazakh tengue devaluation in February, we are revisiting our targets for the second and third phases,” Wainwright says. He notes that the timeline will be assessed as work progresses; ideally, all phases will be finished over an 18-24-month period. “It all depends on how our fleet and route network expands. We don’t want to build a massive facility with three hangars when we only need to build one.”
The tengue devaluation has affected more than just the start date. Originally, Air Astana planned to have the first of its 787s in 2017 and the other two in 2019. Now, all three are scheduled for 2019, Wainwright confirms.
“Obviously, we are designing the hangar with them in mind, but we have a bit of time before we can get enthusiastic about them arriving,” says Wainwright. “We have plenty on our plate. For example, we are in the middle of retrofitting all our cabins to make them similar to those in our 767s.”
Beyond the incoming 787s, which will replace the current 767s, there is still the question about which aircraft types will replace Astana’s 757s, A320s and E-190s.
Recently Foster said the 757s have “always done a great job” for the airline and he is keen to see Boeing resume production with a revamped version. Word at the Singapore Airshow and the International Air Transport Association’s Annual General Meeting in Doha, Qatar, suggests this is becoming more likely, but the new variant is not expected to be available until the early to mid-2020s. In the meantime, the airline needs a replacement for its 757s, and this is likely to be the A321neo, which will also replace the A320s.
If E-2s are brought in to replace the E-190s, they offer only one engine option: the Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan (GTF). A GTF-based powerplant is also available on the A321neo, which could sway Air Astana to choose it over the alternative, CFM International’s LEAP-1B.
“It’s early days yet,” says Wainwright, “and we’re working with the engine and aircraft manufacturers about which types and configurations we will deploy. We hope the providers will be able to convince us which way we should go.”
Air Astana engineers will be busy, which squelches any suggestion, Wainwright says, of Air Astana starting third-party maintenance when the facility is up and running.
“We’re an airline, not an MRO company,” he emphasizes. “While we are working on expanding our range of services, this facility will purely be about supporting our own needs, although, of course, that may change in the future.”
A version of this article appears in the October 6 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.