Airlines in Afghanistan have had a turbulent ride. From decades of war to sanctions over safety concerns, only one airline has survived through some of the most violent years in Afghan history. While Ariana Afghan Airlines stakes claim to the title of the oldest Afghan airline, it is no longer the only choice. Kabul ranks as one of the fastest growing metropolis in the world, and as the population of Afghanistan’s capital city continues to skyrocket new competitors in the aviation sector have taken off to handle the recent surge in air travel. Since 2003, four new airlines have joined Ariana in the Afghan sky.
One, in particular, is standing out from the rest as it attempts to become the top international airline of Afghanistan. Safi Airways too has seen its share of obstacles since it took flight in 2006, but in recent years has worked hard to transform itself and regain passengers trust and ticket sales. Since Safi Airways managed to capture my attention and peak my curiosity with their modern fleet and eye-catching livery and flight attendants, I decided to make them my choice airline for Fly Guy’s first visit to Afghanistan.
Safi Airways stood out from its rivals the moment I began to book using their website. Their homepage is energetically colored with the refreshing signature pastels of the airline, while inviting photos of destinations and historical landmarks across their route network made me anticipate my first visit to Afghanistan even more. In addition to being aesthetically appealing, the page is neatly organized and easy to navigate with minimal page ‘litter’ to distract the booking process. The cost of a return ticket from Dubai to Kabul was priced competitively at around 300 USD for economy and 1000 USD for business class
Dubai: Safi Airways’ flights to Kabul depart from Terminal 1 at Dubai International Airport. I ticketed myself in business class on flight 204, which leaves Dubai at noon and arrives in Kabul at 15:30 local time. I made my way to DXB a bit early to give myself extra time to navigate the expanse of the “super” terminal. The Safi check-in counter had two lines, one for economy and the other for business. I was face to face with a welcoming clerk moments after stepping in the premium class queue. The airline uses contracted ground-handling services in Dubai supervised by a few members of its staff. My check in was effortless; my boarding cards were issued, and I was invited to wait for my flight in the business class lounge.
Kabul: At Kabul International Terminal safety is of utmost importance and rightfully so. After spending nearly an hour in security checks, I was finally at the check-in counter for Safi Airways at the international terminal at Kabul International Airport. If you ever find yourself departing Kabul be sure to leave plenty of time to clear security. The check-in area at international terminal was overflowing with passengers from several different airlines all departing around 18:00. The long lines made the business class priority check in money well spent. Safi’s check in staff in Kabul had excellent communication skills, and they were working quickly to clear the long lines and get passengers on their way.
Dubai: Passengers booked in business class are invited to indulge in unlimited drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and snacks at a shared airline lounge inside Terminal 1. I found the lounge well stocked with a nice assortment of beverages and fresh fare. Complimentary magazines and Wi-Fi were also on hand to entertain me while I waited. At boarding time, lounge attendants alerted me via an overhead speaker that my flight was soon loading.
Kabul: Considering the Kabul airport has been a battleground in recent years, I wasn’t expecting much in the terms of customer comforts, so I was surprised to find there was a room labeled ‘business class lounge’. More of a sitting room than an airline lounge; the space was simply furnished with a few leather sofas along the room’s empty walls. Even without the presence of lounge staff or free amenities, I found the sitting room to be an attractive alternative to the main boarding area, which is shared by all the airlines and rather congested. Another feature that I was pleased to find at Kabul’s international airport was free functional Wi-Fi. The operation for all airlines departing when I was there appeared to be a bit disheveled – with staff doing the best they could with what little they have in the way of airport facilities.
Dubai: Boarding in Dubai was your standard stand in line and take your ticket process. The airline’s Airbus A319 was lightly booked; therefore, boarding was over quick. The flight was loaded via a jetbridge from the rear of the aircraft to the front. The only part of the process that stood out was that there was no pre-boarding offered to those needing assistance or those of us seated in business class. On the aircraft, I was greeted by wide smiles from the airline’s young, professionally groomed international cabin staff. Bags away and settled into my seat, a selection of fresh orange and apple juice, ice tea, and water was offered as a welcome drink. The fresh Afghan apple juice was a tasty treat that I indulged in throughout the flight. Before the doors were closed for a near on time departure, hot towels were served from a silver tray lined with a bit of traditional Afghan flair while customers seated behind in economy were welcomed with candy and wet-naps offered from a wicker basket.
Kabul: As mentioned, airport staff in Kabul appear to struggle with their operation due to a lack of modern airport technologies. Boarding is a mad dash free for all. Having no priority boarding means that if you’re seated in the lounge you don’t see the boarding action and, in my case, you are alerted of the flight boarding only by a final boarding call.This lack of communication resulted in me coming last down the jet bridge onto a full aircraft with no space for my luggage in business class. This wasn’t a worry as the cabin crew were on top of the no-storage situation and invited me to sit in my seat while they sorted out space for my luggage. Again, welcome amenities were offered before takeoff. My return flight 201 was scheduled to depart at 17:55 from Kabul.
On my flights to Kabul and back, a modern Airbus A319 aircraft was used. The plane was laid out in two classes, with a configuration of 12 business class seats in a standard narrow body 2 – 2 configurations and 3 – 3 layout in economy.
In business class, I found the legroom more than generous. I classify myself in the tall passenger category, and I wasn’t even able to touch the seat in front with my feet. All that space gave my neighbor at the window the freedom to move about without causing a disturbance to me. No in-flight entertainment systems are offered on the short sector. It’s a luxury I didn’t seem to miss, as the flight time wasn’t long enough to finish even one movie anyway.
Once sky high on Kabul-bound flights, cabin crew members begin the lunch service and on the return Dubai-bound flight, dinner is served. For the 12 of us seated in business class there were two crew on hand to offer warm Afghan hospitality while three crew were busy looking after the 108 behind in economy class. I was pleasantly surprised at the crew to customer ratio on both my Safi flights, with five crew attentively looking after the 120 passenger load on the A319.
The meal selections were offered verbally in both cabins, with three choices on the menu, two meat and one vegetarian option for business class. On flights departing Dubai to Kabul, passengers seated in economy are offered a light boxed meal and for the Kabul to Dubai sector, a more substantial hot meal tray service is provided with two choices available. No alcohol is served on Safi Airways flights, which meant there was nothing tempting me away from my favorite fresh squeezed apple juice.
The business class meal service began with a round of canapés and drinks. Once cleared, the main meal was swiftly ushered in. My tray heading to Kabul featured my main course casserole, warm bread, a dessert, my fresh apple juice and water, cutlery and a hot beverage cup.
My tray on my return flight was fully stocked with the addition of a fresh fruit salad. Since I have strict dietary requirements I didn’t indulge in the food, instead I gathered feedback from my fellow passengers. The crowd pleaser was the chicken biryani served during the Kabul to Dubai dinner service. Nearly all plates returning to the kitchen appeared to have satisfied their recipients.
The hot meals served leaving Dubai lacked the fresh luster of the ones leaving Kabul; I guess the reason is that all food is catered from Afghanistan. This is normal practice for short sector flights as airlines choose to cut catering costs by bringing food from their own kitchens instead of paying a more expensive second party to prepare their return meals. The downside of this practice is moisture escapes the meals while in transit which can result in a dry dining experience.
The meal service in economy on both sectors was followed by a nonalcoholic cold bar cart with generous selections of soft drinks and unique juice blends like pomegranate, or a peach based fruit cocktail, in addition to the standards. Tea and coffee served by hand soon followed meal delivery in both cabins. Up front it was nice to be offered green tea instead of black for once. My tea offering came along with fresh mint and lemon slices, which was also a nice touch. Once meal trays were cleared, there was just enough time to catch a nap or have a short read before landing at the destination.
At both destinations the curtains between business and economy were left open on arrival, resulting in the forward cabin filling up with passengers eager to get on their way. In both Kabul and Dubai, buses met the flight to transport passengers to immigration or to onward flights. The best part about the Dubai arrival was the large crowds from economy were stopped at the aircraft door to allow those of us in business class the chance to enjoy a less crowded, more relaxing bus journey to the terminal.
The best part of my Safi experience was the sincere service from their cabin crew. Safi has followed the lead of the neighboring airlines in the Persian Gulf and employed a colorful mix of attractive young cabin attendants from all around the world. On my flights I was greeted by smiles from Spain, Kenya, Thailand, Iran, South Africa, The Philippines and Eastern Europe. In addition to the intentional crew there was at least one Afghan member of the team on hand to provide that local hospitality that always seems to be missing on board the major international airlines based nearby. The chance to interact with crew from the country I’m flying to is the main reason I choose national airlines, and I enjoyed Safi for offering such a touch. In addition to their constant smiles and ready to help attitudes, the Safi crew maintained impeccable grooming on every sector flown. The flight crews were dressed in a fashionable Middle Eastern-meets-western designed uniform that is eye catching and flattering for both the male and females. In my professional opinion, Safi’s uniform is one of the most stylish found in the Middle East and Central Asia region.
In recent years, Safi Airways has soared above other Afghan airlines in gaining the trust of customers. It has done so by transforming itself from a drab third-world airline serving a war-torn nation, to a vibrant, safe and modern international carrier focused on placing itself at the forefront of Afghanistan’s return to the present-day Silk Road. Safi’s main hub in Kabul has the reputation for being one of the most volatile destinations on earth; however, the airline has managed to make passengers forgot this through attractive marketing and flying modern aircraft controlled by well-trained crew. The combined package gives the worried traveler bound for Afghanistan the peace of mind they need when touching down amidst Blackhawks and war tanks.
The airline has competitively placed itself in between the full-service mega carriers and low-cost airlines serving Kabul by providing a full-service flight experience at low-cost ticket prices. While the airline lacks certain amenities of other international airlines, like alcohol and in-flight entertainment, it makes up for it by offering a more personable, Afghan inspired in-flight experience. My only critical critique of the airline is that it could even spare to benefit from a bit more of that unique national flavor. In addition to having Afghan crew, I would have enjoyed more local choices on the menu and seeing a modern take on Afghan inspired cabin comforts. Overall, I applaud the improvements the airline has made in rebuilding Afghan air travel and its brand. I’m more than satisfied to have shared my first travel experience to this unique country with Safi Airways.
For more information on Safi Airways, or to book your trip visit their website