Afghanistan’s flag carrier, Ariana was launched in 1955 with four war surplus DC-3’s from India. In 1957 Pan Am acquired a 49% stake in the carrier under a US-Afghan deal. Afghanistan’s king, Zahir Shah personally designed the airlines logo. In 1979 the Soviet’s arrived to prop up their puppet regime and in 1985 Pan Am’s involvement in Ariana ceased and the airline was merged with the country’s main domestic carrier Bakhtar Alwatana. During Najibullah’s communist regime the airline moved from Western aircraft to Soviet jetliners and when the Taliban came to power in 1996 they inherited Ariana’s aging fleet. Taliban rule resulted in limited services due to sanctions but they continued to fly to Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Pakistan and China, as well as domestically. During the US led invasion following 9/11 six of Ariana’s eight aircraft were destroyed in US attacks but the airline quickly resumed flights following the installation of the US’ puppet regime in 2001. Ariana is now controlled by state owned Pashtany Bank and operates a mixed fleet of aging Western planes and one Russian built Antonov AN-24.
Ariana’s passengers are generally the elite of Afghan society and when they hop aboard they are leaving the problems of their country behind, until they land. Crew come from the same socio-economic strata as their passengers and don’t seem particularly enthusiastic about customer service. They deliver an average level of care, quite comparable to Alitalia, Olympic Airways or United. Male uniforms are quite sophisticated and female crew wear a pleasant Islamic scarf. Aircraft interiors were modern in the early 1980’s and are now very tired. Seating sizes are standard.
Considering Afghanistan is not the top of many people’s wish list, it’s surprising how extensive their network actually is. From Kabul’s clean, functional and reasonable modern airport they offer international services to neighbouring countries and longer distance flights to Istanbul and Moscow. The airline was banned from European Union airspace in April 2011 due to safety violations, so their route to Frankfurt is currently suspended. The airlines main passengers are Afghans travelling for work to the Persian Gulf or visiting family members in Europe or surrounding countries. Few international tourists venture onto Ariana.
Ariana is not as cheap as you might expect and considering the averageness of service and the agedness of aircraft it is reasonable pricey. However if you need to fly to Kabul from overseas, Ariana is usually well priced and does promise to give you a glimpse at the country's elite.
Ariana’s disappointing catering matches almost everything else about the airline. Portion sizes are generous and the menu includes traditional Afghan inspired cuisine, featuring rice and spicey meat dishes together with Western soft drinks. The airline serves no alcohol and are not huge on desserts. However, their bread can be yummy on flights leaving Kabul.
Ariana’s entertainment offering includes an inflight magazine that is called ‘Magazine’ a few audio channels and a single movie screen at the front of the cabin. The airline screens popular Hollywood or Indian films with Farsi subtitles so English speakers might be lucky and get a chance to catch up on an older classic. The magazine however it is mostly in Farsi.
Afghanistan’s airports have a level of security that most Westerners are now finding so familiar, yet surprisingly staff do not seem as vigilant as might be expected. Check in agents are pleasant, especially to Westerns, and excess baggage is considered no drama. Luggage does not have a reputation for being handled reliably, but it is more likely to be pilfered than have a bomb put in it.
Kabul’s Business Class Lounge is truly unbelievable. If it were not for the sign over the door it would be hard to believe it was one. The main benefit and purpose of the Lounge seems to be to separate sophisticated passengers from the presumably unsophisticated Economy travellers. Ariana’s Business Class is truly reminiscent of the 1970’s. Essentially it is just a larger seat and larger and better presented meals.
If you actually do need or want to fly between Kabul and Moscow for Delhi for example, then Ariana is fine. Tickets are cheaper than others the airline is very generous with its baggage allowance. The absence of entertainment means you’ll need an iPod or a good book. Staff are noticeably friendly to foreigners.
Surprisingly Ariana does have a Frequent Flyer programme, but unsurprisingly no one else is partnered to it. Like other loyalty schemes, a Reward Club Card is of little value unless you have taken several flights on the airline. Therefore it could only appeal to locals or those working there. It really is difficult to see why anyone would or should join.
Ariana is still proud of its reputation it earned in the 1970’s but that is a lifetime and three wars ago. Ariana is poorly managed, corrupt and getting a job there is dependent on the right political or business connections. A European Union safety report in 2011 itemised some of the faults of the airline and responsibility for these rests with its Managers. Its difficult to see how anything will change. Perhaps the Taliban returning to power when the Americans leave in 2014 might prompt them to lift their game!
The airline operates old aircraft under very difficult flying conditions. The risk of being shot at is not as dangerous as flying into a mountain. Kabul is surrounded by ranges and weather can be notorious. The airline has a shocking safety record resulting from safety breaches, weather, hijacking and war damage. The European Union banning the airline from its airspace says it all. The airline did not get the unflattering nick name Scaryarna without reason.
A distinctive Afghan flying experience you’re unlikely to forget.
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