As a non-Kazakh resident, flying between the country's two main cities can become an expensive affair. Air Astana fly the route nearly every half-hour during the day, however, their steep one-way fares forced me to forego the prospect of a short-haul leg on a 767 and instead look to the competition. Bek Air, SCAT Airlines and Qazaq Air all serve the popular TSE-ALA route, albeit less frequently than Air Astana. KLM and Lufthansa also connect the city pair but without 5th freedom rights.
Usually, a ride on a Fokker 100 with Bek would've sealed the decision for me, but having already logged this type twice before I was more drawn by SCAT's sporadic use of the classic 737-500. I had yet to fly on this stubby member of the 737 family, and combining this with a noon departure that would allow me to reach Bishkek by road the same day I was happy to pay the $35 for a one-way ticket.
SCAT Airlines have an interesting fleet of mainly-aged 737-300s, -500s and a solitary -700, in addition to 757s and a 767 used for holiday charters. My flight was scheduled as a -500 from the moment of booking right up until the morning of the flight, but I was still nervous at the prospect of an equipment change given how many TSE-ALA flights had been served with 737-300s in the preceding days. Luckily, upon arriving at Astana International Airport, I was greeted by the 24-year old LY-AWD.
I have no photographic evidence of being in either TSE or ALA terminals from this trip due to a badly twisted ankle a few days before. Whilst irritating, it meant I could fly though Astana International with the assistance of a wheelchair provided by airport staff upon checking in at the SCAT counters. My ticket included 20kgs of checked baggage, meaning I could put my large backpack in the hold and navigate the airport with only my daypack.
Terminal 1 of Astana International is a slightly outdated but fully functional little place where the bulk of domestic flights arrive and depart. When I arrived at around 11am there was a lull in departures, meaning a very quick and hassle-free bag drop and security check for everyone. My wheelchair "captain" left me at gate 4, where boarding was soon called at 11:15. Being wheelchair-bound for the day meant that, for the very first time in my life, I was the first to board! Unfortunate it was under these circumstances and not because of the class on my ticket.
The wheelchair left me at the end of the jetbridge where I was greeted by today's crew. They took my crutches and showed me to my seat: 5A. Upon entering the cabin, the age of the aircraft could really be seen. Nice, fat cushioned seats and retro overhead panels adorned this all-economy, 118-seat cabin. Disappointingly, despite a 1-hour turnaround the crew seemingly hadn't bothered to clean the cabin, with many of the seats covered in crumbs from previous flights. Whilst the interior was generally in good nick, the lack of some basic cleanliness was a letdown.
Cabin view from row 5 shows the 737-500's pewny length
LY-AWD started life flying for United in 1993, and continued to do so for 12 years. It had since spent time with CanJet and FlyLAL before being delivered to SCAT in 2008. I'm not sure how long SCAT plan to keep the 737-500s in their fleet, but they are certainly a cute addition to the increasingly generic skies.
Seat 5A provided an awesome wing and engine view, so I was happy none of the crew tried to re-accommodate my temporary disability with an aisle seat. There was little action on the apron as the remaining passengers continued to board, but it was still nice to look out on something other than a European airport.
Everything in Astana is now "Expo 2017" branded, including the flag carrier's entire fleet
A very Kazakh approach to airport safety
Boarding was soon completed and the captain announced an expected flight time of 1:25 to Almaty. The cabin door was closed and pushback began at 12:28, with the crew handing out boiled sweets after finishing their manual safety demonstration.
We passed the modern international terminal, with LOT's recently-acquired 737-800 waiting to fly the return leg of their new WAW-TSE route. The apron was also home to some interesting, older Soviet aircraft sporadically parked around. The most bizarre had to be this Antonov An-74 parked behind some military helicopters.
We lined up on runway 04 as the aggressive storm clouds that had been floating around Astana for the last few hours moved in towards the airport. At 12:38, the captain fired up the engines on this old bird once again and began our take-off roll.
Terminal 1's distinctive dome can be easily spotted, mimicking the yurts used by the nomadic people of this region for centuries
A short and powerful takeoff rocketed us into the sky. The next 10 minutes were spent dodging and weaving between huge storm clouds, with the little 737 taking some big hits from air pockets. Newer jets just don't scream as loud as these when climbing!
We were rocked and bumped about but eventually cleared the cloud layer and turned due south at 36,000 feet. Kazakhstan's huge expanse of empty Steppe meant that Almaty would likely be the next visible civilisation on this flight. I was looking forward to just watching the emptiness roll by, even though sporadic cloud cover ruined the view a couple of times.
My seat was comfortable despite the aircraft's age. If anything, I was enjoying what was probably one of my last experiences on non-slimline seats!
Legroom was good and suitable for some of the longer segments these classic 737s fly, such as east-west domestic flights from Astana and Almaty to the cities of Aktau and Atryau on the Caspian Sea. The seatback pocket included an airline magazine, however the majority of its content was in Russian and Kazakh.
I was aware that SCAT serves a snack or light meal depending on the time of day, but was unsure of exactly what to expect. At 13:00, the crew started a lunch service.
Each passenger was given a box containing a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich, a small chocolate and, interestingly, a packet of ketchup. This was served along with a choice of water and juices. If anything, I was pleasantly surprised my the meal service. Whilst not much, it was still more than what many European carriers have reduced their in-flight service to. The snack was followed by and tea and coffee service, both of which were more than acceptable and helped the time pass by on this short Central Asian hop.
After miles of nothingness, the terrain was suddenly interrupted by the vivid turquoise of Lake Balkhash. As we continued south, more and more patterns appeared across the rocky terrain below. The captain initiated our descent just an hour after takeoff at 13:38.
24-year old wings proudly wearing their scars
The wilderness below slowly became replaced by the criss-cross of agriculture as we approached Almaty. It was at this point that I regretted not choosing a seat on the opposite side of the plane, realising that we'd approach ALA from the west. Those on the other side would be treated to spectacular views of the Tian Shan mountains that shadow the city.
It was refreshing to see suburbs consisting of actual houses again after a month in the high-rise jungle of Astana. The cabin crew handed out more sweets in their preparation for landing and we soon lined up to land on runway 05L.
The classic 737 touched down with a bump at 13:59, concluding the flight after 1 hour and 21 minutes. The reverse thrust screamed into life, throwing everyone forward in their seats. We then backtracked along the runway, giving those of us on my side of the plane a chance to admire the stunning mountainous backdrop to Almaty International.
Like Astana, Almaty's apron is also largely covered in Soviet relics awaiting their ultimate fate. Unlike Astana, some of these were parked a matter of yards from the taxiway, such as this majestic Ilyushin IL-76.
It became clear we were headed to a remote parking stand, despite all but one airbridge at the main terminal being unused. There were some interesting characters en route, including the Fokker 100 I could've flown with Bek Air later in the day and another An-74 used by the Kazakh government.
Our remote stand confirmed Almaty as having one of the most dramatic airport backdrops I've experienced. My photos don't do the scale of those mountains justice.
The usual scrum of passengers in the aisle occurred as soon as LY-AWD came to a stop. I was happy to wait and take my time leaving this little classic aircraft, especially as there'd be a bus transfer to the terminal.
More parked Russian aircraft as the Bek Air F100 takes off in the background
I eventually de-boarded and hobbled across to the waiting bus on my crutches. I was half-expecting some assistance on this end of the journey but deep down I wasn't surprised at the lack of it, having not requested anything myself. SCAT seem to only use remote stands at ALA, as we had two others 737s for company.
I took as many photos as possible of my first, and probably last, ever 737-500 before being angrily ushered into the bus by ground staff.
The bus dropped passengers at the tiny domestic arrivals hall, where baggage eventually found it's way to the carousel after about a 15-minute wait. And just like that, my 737 Classic experience was over.
Astana - TSE
Almaty - ALA
I enjoyed having the opportunity to log the 737-500 with SCAT. They provided a good all-round service considering the price I paid, although I can see how they struggle against the gloss and reliability of Air Astana. Still, props to them for still providing a full service and free checked baggage even on cheap tickets. The crew were pleasant and I was surprised at their good levels of English - a rarity in this part of the world, even within the aviation industry. If the cabin wasn't so dirty upon boarding this would've been a rather flawless flight.
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