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Somon cracks the EU code

Posted 7 December 2018 · Add Comment

Somon Air and AtlasGlobal are forging deeper ties in a bid to help the Tajik airline grow sustainably. Martin Rivers reports.

Tajikistan’s Somon Air is strengthening its relationship with Turkey’s AtlasGlobal as it seeks to use Istanbul as a springboard for European expansion.
The two airlines already cooperate through a wet-lease agreement for one of Somon Air’s Boeing 737-800s (EY-787), which now sports the AtlasGlobal livery and is deployed on various routes from Istanbul to Europe and the Middle East.
Both of Somon Air’s 737-900ERs also periodically fly for AtlasGlobal on an ad hoc basis.
Thomas Hallam, Somon Air’s chief executive, said the partnership will be deepened this year with a codeshare deal covering AtlasGlobal’s flights to western Europe, as well as Somon Air’s route from Dushanbe to Istanbul.
Tajikistan currently has just one direct link to the European Union – a once weekly flight operated by Somon Air to Frankfurt. Management are reluctant to add more European routes until the German service becomes profitable. But the country has few other options for EU connectivity: Tajik Air, the only other local airline, lacks third country operator (TCO) authorisation for European flights.
By placing its code on AtlasGlobal’s services to Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, Paris Charles de Gaulle and London Stansted airports, Somon Air hopes to grow its exposure to the continent without taking on the risk of launching new routes.
The privately owned Tajik airline has steadily built up its presence in Turkey this year, adding a third weekly frequency to Istanbul and opening a representative office in the city.
Sales data from its upcoming codeshares will help management assess the viability of launching more nonstop routes from Dushanbe to the EU. Somon Air is already talking to Boeing about a future order for 737 MAXs, which will be deployed to both western Europe and the Far East once traffic levels are sufficiently mature. A second-hand 767-300ER is also likely joint the fleet soon.
Asked which European points have the strongest appeal, Hallam singled out Paris and London.
“The French have built a lot of infrastructure here. They have a very strong presence. And we have some projects that we’re doing in Paris next year,” he noted. “We’ve made a commitment to an archaeological exhibit in a museum in Paris, which we think is going to open the door for people being interested in visiting [Tajikistan]. So, Paris is certainly on the horizon. And the UK.”
The airline’s existing network focuses heavily on Russia – where about one in 10 Tajik citizens find employment – but Hallam wants to reduce its dependence on migrant flows following a series of traffic-rights disputes with Moscow.
He sees strong potential to grow visiting friends and relatives (VFR) traffic, with up to 15 million ethnic Tajiks living in Uzbekistan and 10 million in Afghanistan. As well as encouraging more Afghans to visit Dushanbe itself, the chief executive plans to market Tajikistan’s capital as a sixth-freedom stopover for Germany.
“At the moment, if you want to go from Kabul to Frankfurt, you’re probably going to go via Dubai,” he said, noting that all Afghan carriers are banned from the EU. “But if you come here and connect to our Frankfurt flight, you’ll save four-and-a-half hours.”
Tourism traffic from Europe is more of a long-term aspiration, Hallam admitted, due to the poor state of infrastructure in Tajikistan.
Stressing the need to boost regional traffic before exploring longer-range markets, he said the airline’s focus is on adding cities such as Kabul, Islamabad or Karachi in Pakistan, and unspecified points in India. Flights to Tashkent and Bukhara in Uzbekistan were being launched as Arabian Aerospace was going to press.
Expansion in central and southern Asia will be driven by an upcoming commitment for the Embraer 190-E2. Somon Air has been working closely with the Brazilian manufacturer for 18 months and expects to induct its first E2 in late 2019. “We will probably take at least two from a leasing company initially – two and an option for two – and then in parallel we’re talking with the manufacturer for their later deliveries,” Hallam confirmed.
The 106-seat aircraft will also help Somon Air lift frequencies on strategic routes such as Dubai, which is currently served twice weekly.
 

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