Not only is Kyrgyzstan a landlocked country, but it also holds the record for being the furthest country from the sea in the world. Geographically speaking, Kyrgyzstan is challenged with mountainous terrain in the North and rough deserts in the South. In the winter months, it even happens that snow blocked roads effectively segregate the Northern and Southern populations of the country. In such conditions, an efficient air network is a necessity to overcome the tests of the terrain.
Fortunately, Kyrgyzstan has grown to manage an air sector that is a significant contributor to the country’s economy. To ensure the standard of air traffic the Kyrgyz Civil Aviation Agency (CAAK) monitors the country’s airspace and numerous airports.
At the time of its independence from the USSR in 1991, Kyrgyzstan counted 50 airports within its borders although the majority of them were unfit for commercial use. Today only a few of these original airports continue to serve the country and there are a total of 21 paved runways in Kyrgyzstan, four of which meet international standards.
Manas International Airport
Up until 2006, Manas International with its 4,203m runway was the only Kyrgyz airport fit to handle international flights. Found 25km northwest of the capital Bishkek the airport had been inaugurated in 1974 and saw its first operations under USSR management.
Following independence, the airport was abandoned as a rundown aircraft boneyard and operation only resumed in late 2001 when the US government took interest in the airport as a portal for American troops stationed in the region. Upon US arrival, the airport was revamped, removing the decrepit aircraft and improving its facilities.
Today the airport serves as Kyrgyzstan’s main airport and home to several airlines including Air Kyrgyzstan and Air Manas. It sees a high number of annual passengers peaking with 3.5 million in 2019. Aside from Kyrgyz airliners, several international aircraft regularly land in Manas International including Turkish Airlines, Flydubai, Uzbekistan Airlines, Air Astana, Azimuth and China Southern Airlines among others.
Osh International Airport
Kyrgyzstan’s second most active airport, Osh International averages over one million visitors a year and saw the most traffic in 2019 with 1.5 million passengers. The airport named after its home city has a single 3,212m runway fit to accommodate the large aircraft associated with commercial travel. It serves as the main aerial connecting point between North and South Kyrgyzstan.
The airport performs scheduled flights to 19 cities in total; aside from the Kyrgyz capital, this includes many Russian destinations such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kazakhstan. The most recent addition to Osh International’s regular travel schedule was a direct flight to Kuwait City undertaken by Jazeera Airways.
Issyk-Kul International Airport
This airport was first named after the nearby village of Tamchy in North East Kyrgyzstan, when it was built by the USSR in 1975.
With the addition of a new runway and terminal in 2003, the Kyrgyzstan government renamed it to Issyk-Kul International Airport. Unfortunately, while its 3,800m runway meets international standards, a lack of landing assistance facilities limits the airport to solely daylight operation. Even so, the popularity of this airport continues to grow and it experienced a surge in 2019, with 16,027 travellers, a 38.8% increase over the prior year. Unfortunately, this was significantly reduced in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The airport’s popularity can be attributed to its close proximity to the Issy-kul lake (10th largest in the world), which has been growing in popularity as a beach destination for local fliers as well as tourists from neighbouring countries.
Karakol International Airport
Originally constructed in the 1940s, Karakol International was known as Przhevalsk Airport until 1992 when it was given International status and named after the capital of Issyk-Kul. The smallest of Kyrgyzstan’s international airports, it has a single 2000m runway that regularly sees aircraft from the Avia Traffic Company and Air Kyrgyzstan. It saw a major refurbishment in 1978, that gave the airport the terminal and runway that it continues to use today.
Airlines of Kyrgyzstan
At the moment Kyrgyzstan possesses eight active airlines, the figure that stands after the CAAK canceled 18 operators for various reasons including prolonged inactivity and expired licenses.
As the country’s flag carrier, Air Kyrgyzstan was started in 2001 to replace the former Kyrgyzstan Airlines. It was first named Altyn Air before becoming Air Kyrgyzstan in 2006. The airline is based in Manas International with a second branch in Osh International airport.
Unfortunately, Air Kyrgyzstan has struggled to profit alongside its competitors in the region including Turkish Pegasus Airlines, Russian Ural Airlines, S7 and even private Kyrgyz airlines and saw heavy losses between 2018-2019 before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was caused by increased expenses on the company and its limited flight destinations. Furthermore, the airline has been inactive since 2017 when its lone operational B-737-500 was grounded after a bird collision saw it unfit for flight. In an effort to improve the airline’s performance the Accounts Chamber of Kyrgyzstan procured a plan to privatize the company looking for investors whilst pushing for increased governmental support for Air Kyrgyzstan.
The airline expects to add five new airplanes to its fleet in the near future and has already procured two Airbus units. An agreement with the German fund PANAF Holding also plans to add two ATR72s to the airline’s roster.
To date Air Kyrgyzstan flies to 10 domestic and international destinations including Moscow, Urumchi and Surgut but unfortunately, Air Kyrgyzstan is not permitted to fly into EU airspace.
Air Manas is a budget airline that was opened in 2006 and based in Manas International Airport with a sister branch in Osh International. It operated as a charter airline until 2012 when the airline saw a major revamp and the Turkish Pegasus Airlines bought 49% of the company from the Kyrgyz government. This arrangement continued until 2019 when the Turkish resold its stakes in Air Manas.
The airline serves several destinations including Moscow, Istanbul and Tashkent. In recent negotiations with the Azerbaijani administration, Air Manas was recently allowed passage through Azerbaijan’s airspace and as a result added flights to new destinations such as Trabzon, Minsk and Aktau and Vladikavkaz.
Air Manas’s fleet has included Boeing aircraft – 737-400, 737-800 and 7373-800NG. and it was by the Kyrgyz Minister of Transport Gulmira Abdralieva that it would soon be obtaining two A220-300s in April 2021. She added that this move will render Air Manas as the first Kyrgyz airline to mobilize new-build aircraft. In conversations with 24.kg news agency Chairman of the Eurasian Development Bank, Andrey Belyaninov added that “This deal is already at the end of the process. We hope that it will take place and the renewal of Kyrgyz airlines will begin.” He also discussed the EDB’s willingness to assist in the continuing development of Manas International Airport.
Sky KG Airlines
Sky KG is a charter airline that began flights in 2004. The company uses two Diamond aircraft, one DM-42 Twin Star and DA-42M New Generation. The airline provides passengers alternative travel options within Kyrgyzstan along with touristic services and tours.
As an airline Sky KG stands out because it offers numerous other aviation services, including, flight inspection, light aircraft maintenance, as well as airport management.
Other Kyrgyz Airlines – Tez Jet and AeroStan
Also based in Manas International Airport, the Avia Traffic Company currently serves 5 destinations including Istanbul, St. Petersburg, and Duyanbe. Prior Covid-19 disrupting the airline’s operations it had reached a total of 18 destinations in 2019. The Avia Traffic Company has a fleet of five planes including an A320-200 and four Boeing 737-300s.
The smaller Tez Jet Airlines is a scheduled carrier founded in 2013 and provides daily domestic flights within Kyrgyzstan serving an average of 10,000 passengers per month. The company currently operates 3 aircraft, two ARJ85s alongside an MD-83 and flies between Manas and Osh airports.
Soon to be active, Kyrgyzstans youngest airline, AeroStan has obtained its Air Operator’s Certificate and is preparing to commence operations with one A300B4, a B727-200(F) and two B747-200B(SF). Previously AeroStan operated primarily as a cargo airline but will soon commence operations as a charter airline.
Kyrgyzstan’s Airplanes Can Fly Further
It is optimistic to note that although Kyrgyzstan has struggled to push for economic growth since gaining independence, its aviation network is one of its leading achievements. That said, there is room for improvement in several aspects of the Kyrgyzstan air space such as the numerous airports that remain incapable of operating at night and the airlines providing limited international destinations. Furthermore, it is worth noting that access to EU airspace would be a major step forward for Kyrgyzstan’s flight sector. At Eways Aviation we look forward to see Kyrgyzstan harness the full potential of its skies and bloom like the country’s promising tourism sector.