By: Pranjal Pande
Afghanistan’s civil aviation market has seen a drastic rise in passenger traffic since 2010. The country now caters to over 1 million passengers every year, flying domestically and internationally. So who are the major airlines operating the country, and where do they fly? Let’s find out more.
Afghanistan is currently only home to two airlines, privately-owned Kam Air and flag carrier Ariana Afghan Airlines. Both are based out of the capital city of Kabul, putting them head-to-head on several domestic and international routes.
Ariana Afghan Airlines
Ariana is Afghanistan’s oldest and most recognizable airline. The carrier was founded back in 1955, flying to destinations globally using a fleet of Douglas DC-3s and -4s. Its route network spanned from Kabul to Delhi, Karachi, Beirut, Tehran, Frankfurt, and many more. In the late 1950s, Pan Am took up a 49% stake in the airline to expand its portfolio.
However, the 1980s saw the airline collide with political tensions and civil war in Afghanistan. With international sanctions and a weak economy, the airline was set back decades in its development and mostly flew domestically in this period.
Fast forward to the early 2000s and Afghanistan’s civil aviation industry was once again rebounding. According to CEIC, yearly passengers in Afghanistan jumped from 150,000 in 2000 to a stunning 1.9 million by 2010, aided by strong domestic and international traffic.
Ariana has undoubtedly been at the center of this traffic increase. However, it remains a relatively modest carrier, flying a fleet of five aircraft. This includes one Airbus A310, three 737-400s, and one 737-500. As you may have guessed, these planes aren’t young by any measure. According to Planespotters.net, the average fleet age is 27.9 years old, with the sole widebody being 32.3 years old.
As flag carrier, Ariana Afghan flies to several domestic and international destinations. Due to safety concerns, the airline cannot fly to the European Union or the US, limiting its network to mostly to the Middle East and select other Asian destinations.
Domestically, Ariana has a network for five cities from its hub in Kabul. This consists of Zaranj, Kandahar, Herat, Balkh, and Maimana. Internationally, the carrier flies to Dubai, Jeddah, Riyadh, Ankara, Istanbul, Moscow, Urumqi (China), and New Delhi.
According to CAPA, Ariana has long been planning a fleet expansion to renew its aging planes and open up new destinations. While the fleet size was set to grow by seven planes by the end of 2019, this did not materialize and was replaced by a fresh proposal. This included two 767-300s, two A330-200s, and two Dash 8s.
This would’ve enabled an expansion into Central Asia, Iran, and China, allowing it to take market share from connecting airlines like Emirates and Turkish Airlines. Considering the airline flies less than half a million passengers every year, an expansion has long been required. However, this remains up in the air.
Afghanistan’s second airline is Kam Air, the privately held carrier which has quickly become the biggest by any measures. Founded in 2003, just as the civil aviation industry took off, Kam Air has benefitted heavily from the over ten-fold increase in passenger traffic. The carrier has focused on domestic operations, connecting seven cities in total (beating Ariana), and flies to eight international cities.
Kam Air also operates a diverse and (relatively) new fleet of 13 aircraft, according to Planespotters.net. This consists of four A340-300s, six 737-600s, two 737-500s, and one 767-300. The carrier also flew two ATR 72s until March of this year, but those have exited in favor of focusing on larger aircraft. The fleet averages an age of 23.9 years and does require renewal as soon as possible.
Kam Air also made the news in recent months for operating the first all-female crew on a flight in Afghanistan’s history. The event marked an important step in women’s rights in the country and drew close attention to the airline internationally.
Domestically, Kam Air flies to Fayzabad, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Tarinkot, and Zaranj. The carrier has the highest market share, clocking over 50% thanks to its larger capacity availability and the collapse of rival Safi Airways.
Internationally, the airline flies to New Delhi, Almaty, Kuwait, Islamabad, Dushanbe, Ankara, Istanbul, Dubai, and Tashkent. Notably, these are the markets Ariana was planning to expand into using its renewed fleet of jets. However, while there is overlap, Kam Air has not entered the lucrative Saudi Arabian market and instead focused on Central Asia.
The last two decades have seen a huge expansion of the Afghanistan civil aviation market. From a few hundred thousand passengers at the start of the 2000s, traffic peaked out at 2.2 million passengers in 2011. However, numbers have fallen steadily since 2014, now to their lowest levels since the start of the century.
For instance, 2019 only saw only 1.06 million passengers take to the skies and this number fell further in the next year due to the pandemic. As airlines reel from the lack of foreign traffic, there is a threat of traffic permanently falling and the last decade’s gains being erased quickly. This will closely follow the political situation in the country, which remains unstable currently.
Notably, Afghanistan’s open skies agreement means that foreign carriers dominate international traffic. The biggest airlines are Emirates and flyDubai, followed closely by Turkish Airlines. Considering their significant networks, these airlines play the role of connecting passengers across the continent and globe.
To remain competitive, both Kam Air and Ariana will need to grow their fleets and serve more destinations. If this is possible in the short term, remains to be seen.
The author is the Lead Journalist – India – Pranjal and is an experienced journalist with a strong focus on Indian aviation. His background in political science and economics gives him unique insight into issues surrounding international travel and governmental regulations.