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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Asian Skies Open Wider for Aeroflot

ReutersAn Aeroflot Ilyushin 96 sporting the carrier's new colors, part of an overall image remake that includes new cabin crew uniforms.
Aeroflot on Wednesday moved a step closer to achieving its goal of increasing its market share in Asia by 30 percent this year after Russia and Hong Kong agreed to expand air services.

As part of an agreement signed by civil aviation authorities from both sides, Russia's flagship carrier will add a sixth weekly flight to the former British colony and eventually a seventh. The deal also allows partially state-owned Cathay Pacific, Asia's No. 6 airline, to start direct flights to Moscow and to get greater access to Russian skies for flights to Europe and North America.

In addition, a pending code-sharing agreement will allow Aeroflot and Cathay to sell tickets for each other, said Alexander Kanishchev, head of route planning at Aeroflot.

"The fact that Cathay has agreed to share codes with Aeroflot says a lot about our quality of service and would have been unthinkable five years ago," Kanishchev said by telephone.

Kanishchev said Cathay plans to operate three weekly direct flights from Hong Kong to Moscow beginning next year.

Aeroflot CEO Valery Okulov late last year said Asia would be the centerpiece of the company's long-term growth strategy, and Kanishchev said talks on code-sharing agreements with other Asian carriers are already under way.

Aeroflot currently has agreements with more than 30 carriers worldwide.

Aeroflot is in the process of adding more weekly flights to all of the cities in Asia it services, and it already has daily flights to Beijing and Tokyo. Aeroflot has also resumed flights to Bombay, now Mumbai, after an 18-month break.

The biggest hurdle to faster expansion, Kanishchev said, is a shortage of aircraft.

"The government could have understood that it would be more beneficial to the state if airlines earned money here," Kanishchev said, referring to its refusal to lift prohibitive import duties on foreign aircraft.

Deputy Prime Minister Boris Alyoshin on Tuesday told The Moscow Times that the duties would remain in place at least through the end of the year.

Kanishchev said Aeroflot suffered like all other international carriers from the outbreak of the SARS virus in China last year, but the airline recovered more quickly than most.

"We began to increase the number of our flights in advance and rode out of the crisis like a surfer," he said.

Yelena Sakhnova, transportation analyst with United Financial Group, praised Aeroflot's strategy of focusing on Asia, but doubted that it could achieve 30 percent growth in the market this year.

"We originally expected growth of 7 percent, but now we are expecting 10 percent," she said.

Meanwhile, having decided to scale down its existing operations in North America, including abandoning service to San Francisco, the company is now looking for other ways to tap that market.

Kanishchev said Aeroflot has teamed up with Alaska Airlines and a few other carriers in a special pro rata agreement that will give it access to 42 points on the U.S. West Coast, instead of the three it previously had.

"We hope that other American carriers, when they see the success of this partnership, will sign up," he said.