Azerbaijan 2012 | TRANSPORT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Jahangir Askerov, President of AZAL, on passenger numbers, the Eurovision boost, and future investment plans.

Jahangir Askerov
Jahangir Askerov was born in Baku in 1950, and studied Civil Aviation, and later graduated as an Engineer-Pilot from the Leningrad Civil Aviation Academy in 1980. He has had a long and successful career in aviation, and is currently the President of AZAL.

How have passenger numbers evolved over the years?

In recent years, we have observed that our predictions were completely justified; we have experienced a significant increase in passenger traffic. While AZAL carried 989,096 passengers in 2010, the number of passengers using AZAL's services increased to 1,352,871 in 2011, which corresponds to almost 37% growth. Seasonality is of great significance, and is clearly reflected in the airline industry as a whole. The summer vacation season and major holidays such as the New Year and Novruz traditionally constitute the peak periods. On passenger flights, 4,944 tons of mail and cargo were also transported, which surpassed the 2010 figures by 12.5%. These are very good indicators for success in the future.

What special measures will be implemented to prepare for Eurovision 2012?

We expect growth in passenger traffic, not only exclusive to Eurovision, but in the period leading up to the event. Many viewers and fans of the competition will take advantage of the opportunity to travel by spending several weeks in the country to learn about our culture and traditions. This is due to the growing interest in Azerbaijan as a tourist destination. In the spirit of traditional Azerbaijani hospitality, AZAL is opening its doors up to visitors. On April 20, 2012, we will begin operating daily flights to Paris and Prague, and three flights to Rome and Milan. In early May 2012, AZAL plans to launch three daily flights to Istanbul's Sabiha Gökçen Airport. Unfortunately, the construction of the new international terminal at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport is not scheduled to be completed until 2013. However, the modernization of the existing airport complex will be fully completed before the arrival of our first Eurovision guests.

How do you foresee Eurovision impacting the tourism sector and the country as a whole?

Without a doubt, the contest will serve as an excellent stimulus for the development of the entire tourism industry. When tens of thousands of visitors arrive in the capital, they will witness contemporary Azerbaijan's numerous first-class hotels, recreation areas, resorts, beaches, and entertainment centers. They will also have the opportunity to learn about Azerbaijan's culture, monumental architecture, traditional music, and rich cuisine. Hopefully, they will come visit us again to share their vivid impressions from their visit with their family and friends. I would especially like to emphasize that the industry is prepared to host this large number of tourists. In Baku, famous global brands have opened hotels, the infrastructure has been modernized completely, and unique tourist programs have been developed in recent years.

How do you expect the business activity to evolve with the launch of Gabala International Airport?

The Gabala International Airport was opened on November 18, 2011. We are deeply convinced that several factors reveal the potential of Gabala, such as the Gabala Music Festival, the opening of several five-star hotels, and the magnificent natural beauty of the region. The airport is the gateway to one of the most popular destinations. AZAL is already negotiating with its partners in Russia to open regular flights from Moscow to Gabala. In the future, interest in passenger traffic to Gabala will definitely grow.

How would you characterize the uptake of internet ticket sales?

Online ticket sales for AZAL flights on the official website were launched in 2008. Since then, we have enjoyed a stable increase in online sales. However, this is an industry-wide phenomenon; over the last decade, online air ticket sales experienced rapid growth worldwide.

Year after year, this method of ticket purchasing became increasingly popular in tandem with the population's familiarization with non-cash payment methods. It is much more convenient than the usual visit to the sales agency, which is mutually beneficial as the online sales channel costs the company far less. In 2010, revenue from online ticket sales amounted to about €960,000. In 2011, that figure grew to €1.72 million, which corresponds to an increase of almost 80%.

What are AZAL's current fleet modernization and route strategies?

Currently, AZAL's fleet consists of 21 aircraft: four Boeing 757s, one Boeing 787, three Airbus A319s, seven Airbus A320s, four ATR 72s, and two ATR 42s. AZAL received its first Boeing 767 under contract from the Boeing Company, and it joined the fleet in June 2011. In May 2012, we expect to receive a second aircraft of this type. Furthermore, we expect to receive two next-generation aircraft from the Boeing 787 Dreamliner series in 2014. Along with the growth of our fleet, our route map will also expand. In the beginning of 2014, we have plans to open regular flights to the US and Southeast Asia.

What do investments in personnel training and the aviation center signal regards AZAL's future expansion plans?

We pay very close attention to the training of qualified personnel. On October 20, 2011, in partnership with Boeing Training and Flight Services at the Azerbaijan Academy of Civil Aviation, a modern training center for the staff was opened called AZAL Training. Our activity meets worldwide standards and this center will provide training for our air crew. In the near future, we are planning to introduce manual training simulations for helicopters. This center is unique in the region; AZAL Training will provide education for pilots from across the Caucasus and Central Asia.

What are the main cargo types being imported and exported from Azerbaijan?

The main imports are oil equipment, computer hardware, mobile phones and accessories, mobile communications equipment, auto parts, home appliances, consumer goods, and flowers. Our chief exports are oil, agro-products, and consumer goods.