Starting from scratch 15 years ago, Baku, Azerbaijan-based cargo carrier Silk Way West Airlines has become a well-respected player in the international air cargo scene. However, despite its continuous growth not much is known about the airline which acts quite reluctantly shying away from the spotlight.
Media work, public relations activities, participation in discussion forums at trade fairs and other forms of public presentation, outside its own home turf, was not part of Silk Way West
Airlines’ corporate strategy - up to now. The winds of change blowing across the Caspian Sea have obviously reached the carrier’s headquarters in the meantime, leading to a tentative shift in the
mentality of top management. First sign of this new way of thinking was the carrier’s participation in the recently held TIACA Air Cargo Forum, where the Azeri company had a stand, unveiling its
strategy to attendees interested in getting insights first-hand.
Need for adjustments
“Up to now, we understood ourselves as a niche carrier that better flies below the radar to not wake up any competitors,” explains Pierre Wesner, a former top manager at Cargolux and now Senior Vice President at Silk Way West Airlines. According to him, this strategy has paid off but needs a change now because the Azeri carrier that operates seven Boeing jumbo freighter (5 B-8Fs, 2 B-400Fs) has reached critical mass, with a further B-8F coming next year. “Recently, our fleet and network grew quite fast which requires major adjustments to deliver the service level expected by our customers,” Pierre says. “It’s not sufficient to just operate modern equipment, the challenge is to first reach and then establish a durable balance between fleet expansion and commercial matters as well as streamlined administrative and operational processes.”
In pursuing this aim, he admits that cultural differences between the Azeri headquarters and Silk Way’s European management plays a role in decision-making. This needs to be discussed but at the end of the day both sides always manage to overcome the hurdles, Pierre adds.
Favorable hub position
A key asset is the geographic position of the hub at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport, located at the west shores of the Caspian Sea. The place is right in the middle of traffic routes connecting the Far East and Europe, just like the Silk Road did in ancient times. Which explains the name of the Silk Way Group of airlines.
Silk Way feeds cargo into the neighboring CIS region (Turkey and Russia) from Baku. The Group is eager to further develop transit of goods from long-haul services to regional feeders at its home base, reducing the dependency on oil and gas equipment. A wise move because due to the price erosion, this business segment has gone south of late, Pierre concedes, which now accounts for only 10 percent of Silk Way West’s sales.
Basically, this ambition is in line with the Azeri government’s strategy to reduce the country’s enormous dependence on the energy sector. The sharp fall of oil and gas prices lately demonstrates how urgent this has become. Silk Way West Airlines was originally incepted in 2001 to offer transport solutions beyond oil and gas, followed 5 years later by the Silk Way Group, a holding structure that houses Silk Way Technics, Silk Way Ground Handling, Silk Way Airlines and others.
A single source and work-sharing conglomerate that operates quite successfully based on what is known. The proof is the rapid expansion of the flagship – Silk Way West Airlines.
Operationally, the all-cargo carrier strictly stuck to the old Silk Road, linking China and Europe via Baku. However since 2015 they have embarked onto the North American market (JFK), being serviced twice weekly. The next step came two months ago, launching Baku-Chicago flights two times a week. “On the U.S. sectors we can keep the rates somewhat higher than our European competitors because we are the only airline linking North America with Azerbaijan directly,” manager Wesner states.
Despite all the success achieved up to this point, he admits that there is still a long way to go to meet the Azeri government’s demands: “to become the continent’s leading cargo airline by providing customers with the best and most cost-effective solutions for transportation of any kind of cargo.”
Heiner Siegmund / Michael Taweel