Azerbaijan 2016 | TRANSPORT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Jahangir Askerov, President of CJSC Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL), on reducing airfares, its four-star Skytrax rating, and the company's new route to New York.

 Jahangir Askerov
Jahangir Askerov was born in Baku in 1950 and studied Civil Aviation. He 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.

AZAL reduced its prices for economy class seats on international flights by 20-30% in the summer of 2015. How does this new strategy help promote a vision of a more affordable airfare in Azerbaijan?

We have taken several important steps in accordance with President Ilham Aliyev's instructions to reduce air ticket prices. Since August of 2015, Azerbaijan Airlines has applied a 20-30% discount to the minimum existing tariffs for economy class travel to all international destinations for all passengers. The number of tickets sold at this tariff makes up 30% of all seats. It is necessary to note that economy class services are preserved for all passengers. AZAL now offers low-budget passenger transportation lines for the most popular flights of Baku-Antalya, Baku-Istanbul, and Baku-Moscow. The final sale price of tickets for the flights does not exceed €99 one-way. Unlike standard low-cost models, AZAL provides a number of advantages in its low-cost directives; for example, there is no additional registration fee or fee for choosing seats in the cabin. AZAL is keen to reduce prices for international flights. Recently, a new budget promo tariff was introduced on the Baku-Moscow flight, which does not include luggage. We also plan to open a new budget flight to the resort town of Alanya. The list of budget flights will continue to expand over the summer of 2016.

Joining the ranks of companies like Emirates, Lufthansa, and British Airways, AZAL was recently awarded a prestigious four-star rating from international audit company Skytrax. What are the different qualities measured by Skytrax that go into this rating?

The rating of airlines by Skytrax is measured on a scale ranging from one to five stars and is recognized by the aviation community as an unbiased and indisputable criterion in service quality rating. According to the current rating of Skytrax, a total of 37 airlines are registered at the rating of four stars. By receiving the four-star rating, AZAL has joined well-known global carriers such as Emirates, Air France, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, KLM, British Airways, Japan Airlines, and others. Skytrax auditors virtually evaluate all aspects of airline activity, from the process of buying a ticket to the service and comfort offered on board. The total criteria measured for the airline rating exceed 800. Skytrax pays attention to each indicator, ranging from the airline's website functionality, passenger registration, comfort in business lounge, assortment on menu, to the state of the aircraft. At the same time, a detailed assessment was made into the cabin's condition, its design and cleanness, onboard entertainment, crew uniforms, crew treatment of passengers, and operating efficiency. I am also glad that the Azerbaijani national carrier was nominated for the Skytrax award of World Airline Awards in the global category of “World Airline that achieved most progress," taking its place of honor among such global carriers as Air France and Delta Air Lines. Skytrax conducts audits and assessments of airports as well, awarding the Heydar Aliyev International Airport a four-star rating, putting it among such hubs as Heathrow London, Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi, and others.

What are AZAL's plans for increasing the number of foreign airlines that fly to the regions of Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is interested in attracting foreign air carriers to fly to the country's regions. We hold appropriate negotiations with airlines, including low-cost airlines. These flights promote tourism development in our country. Azerbaijan has many beautiful places that foreign guests will undoubtedly enjoy. In addition, the maintenance of regional airports is much cheaper and ticket prices can be lower than similar flights to Baku.

The first successful Baku-New York-Baku flight with the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner took place for AZAL in November of 2015. As this is set to be a regular flight for AZAL, what is the importance of this route for AZAL?

The first regular flight from Baku to New York was carried out on September 24th, 2014. The flights were operated by comfortable Airbus-A340 aircrafts, which are designed for long-haul flights. Direct non-stop flights to New York became a landmark event in the modern history of AZAL and marked a transition to a higher level of development. After a transatlantic flight test on November 7th, AZAL operates regular Baku-New York flights with the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, one of the most modern aircraft that excellently combine the latest technical advances. Due to the use of the latest technology, the aircraft meets the highest safety standards and is advantageous for this operation. With a convenient schedule for direct passengers of New York flights and for those who use Baku as a transfer point, the flight turned out to be attractive to travelers from Tbilisi, Tehran, Tel Aviv, and other cities.

With an enormous international fan base, how is AZAL preparing to accommodate the influx of visitors in anticipation of the Formula One Baku Grand Prix that will take place in the summer of 2016?

In recent years, we have gained good experience of major international events held in Baku. Baku hosted the popular music contest, Eurovision, in 2012 and the First European Games at a very high level in the summer of 2015. Heydar Aliyev International Airport experienced unprecedented passenger numbers and volumes of baggage during and after the First European Games. The passenger traffic of Heydar Aliyev International Airport exceeded 280,000 people, including over 228,000 passengers of international flights. In this period, over 28,000 foreigners visited Azerbaijan. Not only did the airport face unique challenges in transporting large numbers of athletes and their baggage over a short period, it also had to ensure that business as usual continued undisturbed. It was the dedication, enthusiasm, spirit, and hard work of every stakeholder involved in the program that enabled Baku to deliver such a truly remarkable and unforgettable Games. The latest scientific and technical achievements used in international aviation are applied in the new terminal with a total area of 65,000sqm in order to ensure flight safety. I am sure that during Formula One, as well as the Islamic Solidarity Games scheduled for 2017 in Baku, AZAL will ensure a high level of safety, comfort, and quality service for the passengers.

How will the new parliament following the November 2015 elections help to continue improving the national vision for the domestic aviation infrastructure of Azerbaijan?

Since the day Azerbaijan gained independence, the country's government and parliament have provided continued support to civil aviation. Legislation in the field of civil aviation has been brought into line with international standards and legal norms. I am confident of even closer cooperation with the Azerbaijani Parliament in its new composition.

AZAL has been steadily increasing the number of flights every year. What were the main challenges for your company in 2015, and what is your outlook for the year 2016?

The main problem the airlines around the world face is the financial crisis. The difficult economic situation in many countries has led to a decrease in the purchasing power of the population, in many cases making them save on expenses such as vacations abroad. Many private companies are also trying to minimize their costs. Therefore, launching low-budget transportation to the most popular destinations was a very important step for us. As mentioned, we plan to work in this direction in order to present the most favorable and flexible terms in our pricing policy. In parallel, we will continue negotiating with our international colleagues to operate flights to new destinations and conclude code share agreements.