Hello everyone and welcome to the fourth instalment detailing my trip from Korea to the UK on narrowbody aircraft. In this instalment I’ll be detailing my flight on a Bek Air Fokker 100 from Almaty to Astana.
The previous instalments can be found below:Part 1, Daegu-Beijing, Jeju Air Boeing 737-800Part 2, Beijing-Xian, China Southern Airbus A321Part 3, Xian-Almaty, SCAT Boeing 737-500
So far my trip to Kazakhstan had been fantastic, I had caught a couple of flights on the rare Antonov 24 belonging to Southern Sky Airlines (Trip Report
) and on the not so rare but still interesting Qazaq Air Dash 8 Q400 (report to come). Away from aviation I had spent a day looking around the splendid former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty and eaten some delicious yet cheap food. After a short stay it was finally time to head onto the shiny, new capital, Astana.
Here are some photos from my brief trip to the city:
Inside the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen
Ascension Cathedral – just my luck that it should be covered in scaffolding
Looking over Almaty from Kok Tobe – sadly haze/clouds obscured the view of the nearby mountains
As the crow (or perhaps the golden eagle) flies, Astana is located 609 miles/910 kilometres to the northwest of Almaty and is separated by desert, steppe and the fifteenth largest lake in the world, Lake Balkhash. Yet, despite such geographic features, the journey across eastern Kazakhstan can be conducted by train at various speeds. The fastest taking just over thirteen hours with the cheapest tickets costing around 11500 Kazakh Tenge (around 35 USD) and the slowest making the trip in just under twenty two hours with the cheapest tickets costing a mere 4580 KZT (14 USD).
Yet, unsurprisingly given the two cities’ status as the largest two population centres in the nation combined with their wealth and business traffic, the air route between the two is the busiest in the nation. As of 2017, on an average weekday Air Astana, Bek Air, Qazaq Air and SCAT operate a range of aircraft from small Dash 8 Q400s, to the largest passenger aircraft based in Kazakhstan, the Boeing 767-300ER between the two cities. Whilst many international and business travellers choose to fly with Kazakh flag carrier Air Astana given their good reputation for service, reliability and safety, I am not your typical international traveller. Given the fact that there are few planes in Air Astana’s fleet whose rarity can cause great excitement for an avgeek (although to be fair opportunities to fly the Boeing 757 in or around Korea are non-existent, laugh away US based readers), I opted to choose one of the other carriers flying between the two cities. Having sampled both Qazaq Air and SCAT, I turned to Bek Air, a carrier who not only offered good prices but also an interesting type to sample on the flight to the capital city.
As with SCAT Airlines and Qazaq Air, booking with Bek Air was a piece of cake. Ten days before I was set to fly with them up to Astana I navigated myself to their fairly modern looking, stylish website. This was easy to use and features all the information your average passenger would wish to know in Kazakh, Russian and English. I opted for the earlier of their two flights that day from Almaty to Astana due to its lower price and paid just under 20000 KZT for this. Extra luggage was also offered however considering that I could take 15kg of luggage with me on my ticket I thought this to be a little unnecessary. Seating could be selected for 4000 KZT, however only the front two rows (which I later discovered were traditional large business class seats) could be selected. In order to get my preferred seat at the rear of the aircraft, I checked in online as soon as this opened 24 hours before departure and I was able to select my seat with ease. I also received a PDF boarding pass via email with the sequence number 001 however I was unable to print this out.
There is fairly little information about Bek Air available online however it is known that they began life in 1999 as a business jet operator from Oral in the far northwest of the nation near the border with Russia. Since then they operated a range of interesting aircraft including the BAC 1-11, the Dassault Falcon 20, the Tupolev 154 and the Yak 40. The airline received its first Fokker 100 in 2012 and has been operating an all Fokker fleet since then. Today, the airline has quite an extensive route network across Kazakhstan and also flies internationally to Kabul.
When the departure day came I was up at 0430, attempting to carefully balance my possessions between bags in order to not go over Bek Air’s 15kg baggage limit. After finally achieving this I headed to the communal shower room for a cold shower before dropping my key off at reception and heading to the ground floor. Despite being in the throes of summer, the sun was yet to rise and thus upon exiting the building I received a blast of cool, refreshing air. From here I followed the sparkling diamond atop of the small terminal’s blue neon wave. Outside the terminal, the early morning frenzy was in full swing with large numbers of passengers with large amounts of luggage shuttling in between cars and the terminal. At around 0520 I entered the terminal on the ground floor arrivals level and after a quick luggage scan I headed up the escalators to departures.
As expected, the departures level was packed with virtually no empty seats anywhere in the terminal. On the large departure screen, my 0700 flight to Astana claimed not to be ready to check in however this was shown on the screens above the check in desks. With no queues at the desk I walked to the front and presented my passport. After being greeted in Russian by a friendly Almaty Airport worker, I placed my bag on the scales and found that the worker seemed to not care in the least bit that this was slightly over the 15kg baggage limit. After receiving a plain white boarding pass, I headed through the quiet security area and after a minute or so I entered the small domestic departure lounge.
With the hall one reaches immediately after security being rather busy, I headed over the glass bridge to the lounge that sits above the domestic arrivals hall which was large and spacious with only a small handful of passengers there waiting for an Air Astana flight to Oskemen and our Bek Air flight to Almaty.
Our Fokker waiting as the sun rises in the background
Outside stood a large and relatively new Air Astana Boeing 767 connected to one of the airport's few jetways having arrived from Seoul Incheon the previous evening and preparing to depart on the same short journey as I to Astana that morning. Directly ahead of me stood our colourful but weather-beaten Fokker 100 with a team of ground staff tending to it having already flown two flights that day. Our aircraft for the flight would be 26 year old Fokker 100, UP-F1014 an aircraft that has enjoyed a fairy long and interesting life flying across the world. The aircraft was originally ordered in 1988 by the second ill-fated reincarnation of Braniff where it was set to become N216BN however this order was then transferred to Pan Am where it fly across western Europe as N422PA. However once more the aircraft was not taken up and instead was transferred to Iran Air as EP-IDN. Although like the two previous US airlines, Iran Air did not take the aircraft up. The sad Fokker that no one wanted made its first flight from Amsterdam Schiphol on the 12th of April 1991 and two months later it headed across the Atlantic to find a home with TAM. After a thirteen year career flying the skies of Brazil, the aircraft headed back across the Atlantic to begin a four year stint with Spanish airline Girjet operating for Spanair. In 2008 the aircraft returned to its homeland to fly for the now defunct Denim Air where it flew as PH-LNE for Sirocco Aviation and then Malta based Excellent Air. In March 2013 the aircraft entered storage at Saarbrucken. After ten months in storage the aircraft was delivered to Bek Air. In 2016 the aircraft took a six month stint flying with the Afghan airline Kam Air, in February 2017 the airliner once again headed to Afghtanistan to fly for two months with Safi Airways and again in July 2017. In fact the aircraft only began to operate for Bek Air once again just over a week before my flight. In the week prior to my flight the aircraft had flown 28 flights across Kazkakhstan covering around 19600 miles visiting Aktau, Aktobe, Almaty, Astana, Atyrau, Kyzylorda and Shymkent.
At 0550 the red sun started to rise above the horizon and an East Wing Yak 40 was pulled past our aircraft. Before arriving in Kazakhstan I had attempted to work a flight in a Yak into my schedule however with only and Zhetysu and ZhezAir operating the flight non-daily on one route each (Taldykorgan-Astana and Zhezkazgan-Karagandy), the impossibility of booking these online and the fact I only had four days in Kazakhstan I unfortunately had to give the type a miss. Inside the waiting area an Air Astana gate agent walked around making repeated calls for Astana bound passengers on their 0610 flight, whilst in the meantime a steady stream of passengers for our flight filtered into the hall. Back outside two foreign Airbus A321s from Aeroflot and Atlasjet trundled off to the runway as did Bek Air’s first flight of the day to Aktau. At 0600 our crew started to arrive at the Fokker and a few minutes later the trolleys were unloaded and replaced, a process which involved carrying these up and down the aircraft steps one by one. At 0605 the team of cleaners emerged out of the aircraft, polishing each step one by one. Given their attention to detail, I expected the cabin to be immaculate!
By 0610 the pilots arrived shaking hands with a gentleman who appeared to be the lead ground crew member before climbing up the steps of the aircraft. By this time the waiting area had become rather full although this began to empty our a little when boarding for the Air Astana flight to Oskemen opened up. At 0633 boarding for our flight was called and unlike my previous flights in Kazakhstan in which boarding was conducted in an orderly manner, this time a crowd of passengers gathered around the gate creating no sort of queue. After a few minutes of waiting my boarding pass was scanned and I made my way down the stairs and out onto the apron. There was a small queue as I waited to climb up the aircraft’s steps, not that I complained as this offered me a perfect view of Bek Air’s oldest Fokker with the scenic backdrop of the snow-capped Trans-Ile mountains. I then made my way up the steps which seemed higher than then looked and into the cabin where I was greeted in Russian.
After turning right I spotted the two rows of large leather seats in a 2-2 which could be reserved online for an extra fee. Having seen pictures of Bek Air cabins retrofitted with modern style leather seats I was a little surprised (but not in a negative way) to find older dark blue leather seats. After heading to the rear of the aircraft I took my classic avgeek Fokker seat aka one with a good view of both the engine and the wing. After sitting down I found the seat to be fairly reasonable in terms of softness and comfort however the legroom wasn’t too great, although bearable for a short flight. I also noticed that the seats themselves seemed to be relatively short allowing you to easy see the rest of the cabin in front of you. The seat pockets contained a copy of the safety card which interestingly referred to the aircraft as a Fokker F28 Mk0100 a name which was originally used for the project but I’m far as I’m aware hadn’t been used since the mid-1980s. I sat opposite the former rear exit door which had since become de-activated.
Tight legroom on this Fokker 100
Old style overhead panel
Boarding was completed by 0645 and our flight turned out to be a virtually full. This was also one of the more international flights I had taken in Kazakhstan with a number of passengers onboard from China, Russia and Turkmenistan. Like with my previous flights, many of the passengers seemed to be leisure flyers taking flying alongside their family. The cabin was served by three flight attendants, one female and two male, all of whom seemed to be in their twenties.
The main cabin door was shut at 0650 and this was followed by a welcome and safety announcement. We then began a long pushback in which our nose was turned to face the mountains before turning again to face the terminal, ending up in a stand next to a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 waiting to start its engines. We held in the bay for a few minutes before starting our engines, during this time the crew came around with boiled sweets. After a while our Rolls Royce Tay engines loudly whined into life one by one before our flaps were extended in preparation for departure.
Waiting to start our engines
Three minutes after our engines fired into life we pushed forward out of the stand and made a short taxi past a bank of business jets to runway 05L. Here we once again waited for several minutes for an arriving Sunday Airlines Boeing 757 to clear the runway. However, I could not complain about the wait as it gave me and all other passengers on the right hand side of the aircraft a perfect view of the scenic mountains in the distance. In fact this was the only time during my stay in Almaty in which the peaks of the mountains were not shrouded in clouds.
At 0704 we taxied straight onto the runway, the engines were powered up and we made a powerful and noisy rolling take off. After travelling what seemed quite a way down the runway the yoke was pulled back and we rotated upwards into the sunny sky. Immediately after lifting off we decreased our rate of climb turned to fly northwest. Beneath us the morning mist and haze restricted our view of the scenery beneath us however it was still possible to make out features of the Kazakh landscape. Inside, the noise of the engines at the rear of the cabin was far greater than the engine noise one can hear when flying on your typical Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 and I imagine it would have been hard to sustain conversation at such noise levels.
After ascending up over the green fields, six minutes after takeoff the city of Kapchagay and its large reservoir came into view. Twenty minutes after takeoff we reached our cruising altitude of 34000 feet at which time the seat belt signs were switched off. As the bright morning sun shone into the aircraft the cabin became rather warm, in order to shade myself I reached to close the blind noticing that instead of the usual Fokker 100 branded plastic window shade many of the other passengers had, my window was fitted with a makeshift card blind that wouldn’t stay down. Beneath us the sandy coloured rose up slightly into hills although these were nothing compared to the tall mountains of Almaty we had left behind. At 0730 as we flew just to the east of the village of Koktal the drinks trolley was wheeled to the back of the cabin and the in-flight service began. This consisted of a wetwipe, a soft drink of the passenger’s choice served in a paper cup, a large bag of fish shaped salted crackers and a chocolate wafer which was perfect for this short morning flight up to Astana.
The heavily scratched window
The excellent offering
As I consumed these goods we crossed the southern shores of Lake Balkhash and soared high above its blue waters. This lake is the 15th largest in the world and is notable for the fact that half of the lake features fresh water and the other half salt water. As we neared the lake’s northern shores we crossed into Karagandy province and overflew the city of Balkhash where I had passed through a couple of days earlier. After this we flew parallel to the M-36 highway which runs for over 2000km connecting Almaty in the south to the Russian border near Kostanay. At this time the clouds came in and disrupted our view of the earth until we neared Astana.
About to head out over Lake Balkhash
Thirty minutes later at 0800 the crew came around with a black bin bag encouraging passengers to put their rubbish into it. At 0813 the seatbelt signs were switched back on indicating we were to return back to earth. This was confirmed when our power fell back to a high pitch whining and our nose dropped slightly. Moments later an announcement was made inviting passengers to return to their seats and fasten our seatbelts. Beneath us the clouds opened up revealing a winding river north of Temirtau.
Heading down towards earth
Suddenly at the back of the cabin a woman could be heard shouting towards the front of the aircraft causing several passengers to turn around and others to rush to the back of the aircraft. As it turned out it appeared a passenger had fainted at the rear of the aircraft. Fortunately she appeared to have recovered to the extent that she was able to walk back to her seat and was given water by the crew. With the drama over we continued to descend over the dusty covered steppe which became increasingly green as we approached the capital. Eventually at 5800 feet we turned to line up with Astana’s runway 22 yet beneath us nothing to indicate that we were minutes away from landing at the airport of a capital city. As we sunk lower the flaps were gradually extended before suddenly the modern urban sprawl of Kazakhstan’s capital suddenly rose out of the steppe. Whilst on final approach those sitting on the starboard side of the aircraft were treated to a good view of the nation’s capital with most of the city’s major sites clearly visible.
Astana suddenly coming into view
We continued to gently float down over the grassy flat lands that surround the city before crossing the airport perimeter fence and passing over a Zhetsyu Yak 40 before coming down onto the runway contrasting with all the smooth touchdowns I had experienced during my time in Kazakhstan. After some light braking we taxied off the runway and followed a follow-me car to our stand as the Yak 40 made its distinctive shallow climb upwards on its journey to Taldykorgan. Upon turning into our stand, I was a little surprised to hear the engines shut down before we stopped with the pilots allowing the aircraft to coast into the stand.
Firmly back on the ground
The distinctive shape of the Yak 40 rising upwards
As with all my flights in Kazakhstan, there was no rush to disembark once the seat belt signs were extinguished. After a couple of minutes of waiting, the main cabin door opened and passengers began to steadily stream out of the aircraft. Having flown in the rear of the aircraft and with this being a full Fokker 100, two bus loads of passengers were required to deliver the passengers to the terminal and thus there was a slight delay as we waited for the second bus to arrive. After this bus pulled up, disembarkation continued and I made my way down the aircraft steps into the pleasantly warm Astana summer air. After boarding the bus there was only a short time until this departed. During the bus journey it became clear Astana was Embraer central that morning with plenty of examples from Air Astana and one from China Southern slowing down on the runway. After a short journey we arrived at the terminal and a couple of minutes later bags started arriving. Fortunately mine was one of the first off the aircraft and thus I was out of the airport in no time.
Disembarking the aircraft
With my next flight departing at 0415 the next morning, I decided the best course of action was to get a room at the airport hotel before going off to explore Astana. Upon arriving at the 16 room hotel, I was told 'no rooms', lacking wifi I headed back into the airport in order to enquiry about local hotels at the information desk. After telephoning they confirmed that a room at the airport hotel would be available after an hour and so I proceeded to wait at the hotel until the room became available.
Considering their 15kg luggage allowance, low fares and high price for a reserved seat, I had assumed Bek Air to be a low cost airline and thus my expectation of their service was pretty low. However I was pleasantly surprised to find that the beverage service offered was better than that offered on SCAT and Qazaq Air's domestic flights. The crew were relatively friendly and could be seen smiling and chatting to passengers during the flight. Being an old aircraft, I was not incredibly surprised to find it looking quite worn and battered. However I imagine those passengers used to the modern aircraft of Air Astana may find such aircraft a bit of a shock. As mentioned the legroom was not perfect but sufficient for a short flight.
OTHER TRIP REPORTS
Please note, the photos of many reports seem to no longer be working however these photos can be viewed on my blog Forever in Y
Korea DomesticAsiana Boeing 767 Gimpo-JejuAir Busan A320 Busan-JejuJeju Air Boeing 737-800 Busan-JejuJin Air Boeing 777-200ER Jeju-GimpoKorean Air Airbus A330-300 Jeju to BusanKorean Air Boeing 747-400 Gimpo to JejuKorean Air Boeing 787-9 Gimpo-Jeju
Short HaulCityjet Avro RJ85 London City-CorkFar Eastern Air Transport MD-80 Taipei Songshan-MakungJeju Air Boeing 737-800 Daegu-BeijingJoy Air Xian MA60 Yantai-Dalian-YantaiLucky Air Airbus A320 Lijiang-KunmingSouthern Sky Airlines Antonov 24RV Almaty-Balkhash-AstanaThai Airways Boeing 777-300 Bangkok-PhuketTibet Airlines Airbus A320 Kunming-LijiangUkraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 Kiev-IstanbulV Air Airbus A320 Taipei-Busan
Medium HaulAir India Boeing 787-8 Incheon-Hong KongChina Eastern Boeing 737-800 Incheon-KunmingChina Southern Boeing 777-200 Urumqi-BeijingKorean Air Boeing 737-800 Incheon-KunmingSCAT Boeing 737-500 Xian-AlmatyVietjet Airbus A320 Ho Chi Minh City-Taipei
Long HaulChina Southern Airbus A330-200 Istanbul-UrumqiKLM Cityhopper/KLM Fokker 70 and 747 Combi Humberside-Amsterdam-Seoul IncheonKorean Air A380 Seoul Incheon-Paris CDGOman Air Airbus A330-300 and Boeing 787-8 Heathrow-Muscat-BangkokThai Airways Bangkok-Karachi-MuscatVietnam Airlines Airbus A350 and Boeing 787-9 Heathow-Hanoi-Seoul Incheon
Based in Seoul.