. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Almaty's Frequent Fliers Get Relief

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Take heart, air travelers to Kazakhstan. There are now 200 baggage carts waiting for you at the Almaty airport.


That may seem a mundane development, but not to Western business fliers and others who frequent what is widely regarded as one of the most hassle-ridden airports of the former Soviet Union.


Baggage carts aren't the only innovation now that the airport has been taken under the wing of a Lufthansa German Airlines subsidiary. The main runways have been improved, and the international arrival hall remodeled. Renovation of the departure terminal is about to begin, and more improvements to the runways are on the priority list.


"Everything has to be upgraded as soon as possible," said Bernd Sperlich of Lufthansa Airport and Ground Services, who now acts as the airport's general director. "We want to transfer our technology so the airport can raise its facilities to international standards."


The Lufthansa subsidiary is party to an agreement under which it holds trusteeship over all the airport's shares and has full management rights to the facility, in exchange for undertaking a major upgrade.


Sperlich said a government loan guarantee is being sought for the $50 million project, to be paid off from airport operations.


Besides Lufthansa, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Austrian Airlines and a Pakistani joint venture are the only air carriers from outside the Commonwealth of Independent States that now use the airport. Other airlines intend to sign on once the main runway is improved to accommodate Boeing-747 jumbo jets, Sperlich said.


Lufthansa Airport and Ground Services is no stranger to the task of helping bring substandard airports up to snuff. It previously has taken on management of the Bucharest International Airport and has a cargo- and passenger-services venture at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-1 airport.


Lufthansa was drawn to Almaty because of the increasing number of foreign companies involved in oil-rich Kazakhstan.


Like other Soviet-era airports, the Almaty International airport is tiny, consisting of a wing of the main domestic airport for departures and a separate hall for arriving flights. The 900,000 passengers that pass through yearly have faced long delays for both departing flights and upon arrival, when customs and visa processing sometimes could take as long as five hours.


Within the past six weeks, however, the situation has improved markedly.


"I just walked right through without any of the trouble I had heard about," said Audrey Gunnell-Lohr, the wife of an Almaty-based consultant, who made it through arrival formalities in a near-record 45 minutes.


The new baggage trolleys cost $1 to use, but that is a bargain compared to the $5 charges some airport workers wanted previously to tote baggage to the parking lot.


Airport employees also have reason to smile: They received their October salaries on schedule for the first time in months. An added bonus is fewer complaints from grumpy passengers.


"They've really pulled together services here," said Gulfaruz Shamoutzina, who staffs the information desk overlooking a departure hall that is not much bigger than an average living room. "People don't have to wait as long. They don't seem to get as uptight as before."