CEO Interview: Air Samarkand’s Anton Khojayan
Airlines Interview

CEO Interview: Air Samarkand’s Anton Khojayan

Air Samarkand's first Airbus A330 pictured at its home base airport. Photo: Air Samarkand

DALLAS — Uzbekistan has been a prominent cultural and religious center for generations. Despite its rich history dating back to the seventh millennia BC, the country was, for many years, far removed from the tourist trail for many travelers. In 2016, a decree was issued, which led to a gradual relaxation of border controls. Today, citizens from around 100 countries can visit Uzbekistan without obtaining a visa.

Samarkand is the region’s most significant historical site and Uzbekistan’s second city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site designation underscores the city’s historical significance. Overseas travel to Samarkand typically requires connecting through other cities, such as Istanbul, Dubai, or Tashkent. Despite its population of approximately 1,000,000 people, the city formerly had little direct connectivity to overseas places outside of the local region.

The carrier hopes to leverage the historical attractions of its home city to entice more tourists to visit. Photo: Air Samarkand

Inaugural Flight


Air Samarkand (9S) received regulatory approval to begin operations on December 27, 2023. Two days later, the carrier flew its inaugural flight, a roundtrip charter to Istanbul Airport (IST) with an A330-300 registration UK33001. Anton Khojayan, the airline’s CEO, granted Airways an exclusive interview and elaborated on its expansion goals.

Since April 2022, the 37-year-old has led the launch project for 9S. With an aviation career that includes service with the national carrier, Uzbekistan Airways (HY), and a supervisory role with the country’s airport operator, his expertise in the Uzbek aviation sector now exceeds a decade.

The carrier currently operates a single Airbus A330-300 and one A321ceo, delivered in November 2023. Additionally, two A321neo aircraft are being configured at the time of writing, with delivery likely “in the coming weeks,” according to Khojayan.

For a more detailed analysis, the CEO stated that they will concentrate on the A330 and A320/321 fleets for future growth. The airline plans to fly four aircraft by the end of Q1 2024 and up to eight aircraft by 2025.

Anton Khojayan, CEO, pays tribute to the carrier’s first flight by speaking to the media. Photo: Air Samarkand

Future Vision


The CEO explained that the company’s founders are a collection of Uzbek private investors and entrepreneurs. Bakhtiyor Fazilov, a Samarkand native, is a key investor in the airline and the country’s tourism sector, including the new Silk Road Samarkand tourist complex. This is Central Asia’s first international tourism resort, including four- and five-star hotels.

In April 2020, government deregulation allowed new airlines to operate in Uzbekistan. While 9S is the only Uzbek carrier with a base at its namesake, other Uzbek carriers are also taking advantage of the level playing field.

In addition to a new airline, the city now has a new terminal facility that opened last year. The city’s first terminal was built 32 years ago, but a replacement was never viewed as a pressing concern due to slow economic and tourist growth.

Airbus A330 UK33001 is captured departing SKD on its maiden voyage to Turkey. Photo: Air Samarkand

A Commendable Airport


Samarkand International Airport (SKD) has already reported a doubling in the number of passengers utilizing the new airport, exceeding the one million passenger milestone for the first time. It’s worth noting that this surge in passenger throughput occurred before 9S took to the skies, highlighting how 2024 will be an essential turning point for the Uzbekistan gateway.

The new terminal has a bird-wing-inspired roof and can accommodate two wide-body aircraft or four narrow-body aircraft at the same time via jetbridge access. Khojayan is enthusiastic about the new terminal, describing it as “first class” and suited for a city with such natural and cultural significance.

The CEO portrays growth potential as “limitless” and aligns this with a “huge” interest in tourism, which has previously been untapped.

“We are not limited to services connecting onward from Istanbul, Dubai, or any other city. We are going to satisfy an airline gap in this market with a home carrier at Samarkand serving major cities in the region further afield internationally.”

Anton Khojayan, Air Samarkand CEO

From a local perspective, the carrier believes it can service a catchment area of 12.6 million people in and around Samarkand. Khojayan stated that these residents are, “forced to endure time-wasting flight connections in Tashkent and other regional airports to reach major international destinations.”

The new terminal building at SKD has an elegant design inspired by the graceful curves of a bird’s wings. Photo: Air Samarkand

Target Market


When asked if the carrier will continue to focus on the charter market or if scheduled routes will be added in the future, Khojayan said that the immediate focus will be on the charter market. However, scheduled routes are set to begin by the end of March 2024, coinciding with the commencement of the industry’s summer season.

Khojayan hinted at what their inaugural route offering could include, mentioning Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China as potential destinations. Istanbul will remain a focal city for 9S, with services to Istanbul (IST) expected to launch soon. While the carrier’s initial expansion appears to be centered on the East, the CEO expressed a desire to expand to the Middle East and Europe but declined to indicate when.

Before exploring new markets, 9S will focus on “pent-up demand,” as he characterized it. Given the absence of ties between SKD and the Far East, this appears to coincide with an initial desire to expand eastward.

The Airbus A321 will serve thinner routes, while the Neo variant will offer the ability to reach Europe and the Far East. Photo: Air Samarkand

Cabin Offering


A two-class cabin will be available, with 9S providing a full-service experience to all passengers. All fare categories will include hot meals, drinks, and baggage allowance. Furthermore, all passengers will receive blankets, pillows, and amenity packs for business-class travelers. While outlining the numerous service characteristics, Khojayan stated: “We will make every effort to make tickets affordable at a very low price.”

Given the strategic location of SKD, the CEO was asked if offering connections through their base airport was possible. “We are also working with Air Marakanda, the management and ground handling company for our impressive new airport, to ensure that we provide efficient inter-connecting services for those customers,” he said.

With 9S pitching its service offering at the more premium segment of the market, along with SKD’s new modern terminal, the carrier could be very well placed to offer attractive connections by leveraging the benefits of premium service coupled with a modern yet compact terminal.

Istanbul will play a pivotal role in the airline’s future route network. Photo: Air Samarkand

Potential Partnerships


In addition to this potential, there are plans to negotiate cooperation agreements with other airlines to provide customers with convenient connections at SKD. Furthermore, the CEO noted that they have a solid working relationship with Air Marakanda, ensuring efficient interconnecting services for its passengers.

While reflecting on how the aviation landscape in Uzbekistan has changed, the CEO stated that the government’s policies, developments, public-private investments, infrastructure, and facilities have contributed to the decision to launch 9S. Marking the significance of the timing of the carrier’s launch, Khojayan expressed it as an achievement that would not have been possible ten years ago.

“For other airlines, Samarkand is the final destination, while Air Samarkand is the starting point,” he said.


Featured Image: Air Samarkand’s first Airbus A330 pictured at its home base airport. Photo: Air Samarkand

author
Aviation author and commercial pilot based in the UK, with close to twenty years in the industry.

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