Turkish Airlines, Erdogan's Ultimate Soft Power Weapon
In the last 20 years, Turkish Airlines’ rapid development has shocked its competitors. The carrier is generating substantial profits, while serving the interests of the Turkish state.
ISTANBUL — A young pilot takes off in a biplane reminiscent of the interwar period. He lands on an asphalt runway and parks alongside Boeing 737s. On the tarmac, another pilot in a contemporary uniform greets him and escorts him into a gleaming airport lined with Asian stewardesses and passengers.
A screen announces a departure for Lusaka (Zambia). "All these nationalities and destinations..." marvels the young pilot, scanning a flight display panel. "Of course, we're the airline that flies to the largest number of countries in the world," replies the proud modern-day pilot.
This scene, taken from a commercial broadcast last June, celebrates the 90th anniversary of Turkish Airlines, the country's national carrier. Founded in 1933, the airline's history is, in many respects, remarkable. With service to 129 countries, it is the carrier with the most international connections in the world, 9 countries ahead of second-placed Air France-KLM.
In the span of 20 years, Turkish Airlines has become a major player in the global airline industry, with seemingly unstoppable expansion. Having extended its network to the European, North American, Middle Eastern and African markets, the Turkish carrier has set its sights on India and Asia.
In addition to the flights it already offers to South and East Asia, it signed a code-share partnership with Indian low-cost carrier IndiGo at the beginning of the year, expanding its access to the growing Indian market. Over the summer, it signed similar agreements with Vietnam Airlines and Thai Airways, further consolidating its position in Southeast Asia.
71.8 million passengers
“Between 2009 and 2019, Turkish Airlines has nearly tripled its annual passenger count, seeing passenger traffic increase from 21.5 million to 74.3 million” notes Richard Malsen, the head of analysis at the Capa Center for Aviation in Sydney Australia. “After a drop in activity due to COVID-19, it transported 71.8 million passengers in 2022, making it the sixth largest airline in Europe in terms of passengers,” he continued.
While these figures are still lower than other major American and European carriers, such as Air France-KLM (83 million passengers) and Lufthansa (101.8 million passengers), Turkish Airlines has essentially recovered from the pandemic which, with the exception of Qatar Airlines, is not the case for most of the world’s major carriers.
The airlines takes advantage of Istanbul's ideal geographical position.
Turkish Airlines also outperforms the major Western airlines in terms of profitability. In 2022, it made a profit of $2.7 billion, less than the $2.9 billion generated by Emirates, but far more than the nearly $1.3 billion recorded by Delta and Lufthansa, for example.
Furthermore, Turkish Airlines continues to invest heavily in its fleet, acquiring modern aircrafts such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787. Last May, Ahmet Bolat, Chairman of the Board of Directors, announced plans to add 600 aircraft to the company's existing fleet of 429 by 2033. The strategic objective, he declared, was to reach 170 million passengers by then.
Turkish Airline planes at the Atatürk airport in Istanbul, Turkey.
A star model
“These investments have enabled Turkish Airlines to face the competition from major European carriers, as well as other carriers such as Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Ethiopian Airlines," claims Olivier Ponti of ForwardKeys, a consulting group that specializes in travel and tourism. “Despite this extremely competitive environment, Turkish Airlines has managed to gain significant market share."
Faced with competition from the Turkish carrier, some European airlines have reduced the number of flights they offer to Istanbul. Such is the case of Air France-KLM, which in 2016 discontinued a daily rotation from Paris and Amsterdam.
Behind the airline's success: an ultimate hub that takes advantage of Istanbul's ideal geographical position, as the megalopolis is located at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The mammoth Istanbul airport, inaugurated in October 2018 by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has since risen to become Europe's busiest airport.
"The growth in transit traffic has enabled Turkish Airlines to fill its planes," notes Julien Lebel, a geopolitics expert and author of a doctoral thesis on the strategic influence of Turkish Airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways.
But unlike the Gulf carriers, which rely heavily on connecting flights, the Turkish carrier can also count on traffic with the final destination being Turkey itself.
As a result, Turkish Airlines has been able to respond rapidly and effectively to global shifts in demand by leveraging its extensive route network. "During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the airline redirected its flights to routes where demand was higher, and adapted more effectively to changes in travel restrictions," continues Olivier Ponti.
Low operating costs
The Turkish Carrier does not hesitate to adjust quickly to the changing geopolitical context, a versatility seen starkly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “As Russia found itself cut off from the West, Turkish Airlines quickly expanded access to this market, flying more and larger aircraft to meet the demand of Russian tourists and businessmen,” observes aviation specialist Seth Miller, head of the PaxEx.Aero website.
This business model is based on relatively low operating costs. While its labor costs are expressed in Turkish lira, the company's revenues are typically calculated in euros or dollars. This works to the carrier’s advantage, as Turkish lira has been plummeting for the past five years.
The key to Turkish Airlines' success is, above all, the support of the Turkish government
Furthermore, Turkish Airlines prefers to use single-aisle aircraft rather than wide-body jets. Although these aircraft only have a six-hour non-stop flight capacity, they enable the company to operate most of its routes to Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
But the key to Turkish Airlines' success is, above all, the support of the Turkish government. Although the state privatized the company in 2004 and 2006, reducing its stake to 49%, it remains closely involved in its affairs and enjoys special prerogatives in its management. "The Turkish government's approval is required for many strategic decisions concerning the company's development, which is not necessarily the case for the other shareholders," explains Julien Lebel.
By negotiating airspace rights with foreign countries, the Turkish government has assisted Turkish Airlines in its expansion into new markets. This expansion has been carried out in line with the interests of the state. "Turkish Airlines' operations are coordinated with Turkey's foreign policy," sums up Orçun Selçuk, a political scientist at Luther College, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the airline's political role.
A tool for soft power
“This is particularly visible in Africa, where the opening of Turkish embassies are frequently paired with new Turkish Airlines routes. Delegations of Turkish businessmen close to the AKP, Erdagon’s political party, have been active in forging economic ties with the countries involved,” adds Julien Lebel.
As well as helping to consolidate Ankara's diplomatic and economic clout, the company is a "soft power" tool at the service of the nation. With its global presence and top-quality service, Turkish Airlines raises Turkey's profile and conveys a positive international image.
Its management regularly boasts of the carrier's performance in Skytrax rankings, which are based on customer satisfaction levels. Last year, for the eighth year running, Turkish Airlines was named "Best European Airline".
To build its reputation, Turkish Airlines has not skimped on its marketing strategy, paying top-dollar for collaborations with sports and film icons. After the American basketball player Kobe Bryant and the Argentine footballer Lionel Messi in 2012, the company hired American actor Morgan Freeman for an advertising video in 2022.
Despite Erdoğan's expressed wish to rename the company to its Turkish name, "Turk Hava Yollari," in June 2022, the "Turkish Airlines" brand has not changed its label, and today enjoys a strong reputation abroad. And that's not without flattering national pride.
As columnist Ragip Kutay Karaca wrote in the Turkish business newspaper Dunya last May, "When I hear foreigners praising the company, it makes me proud," he confessed. “Turkish Airlines makes me feel a comforting sense of ease: that of a global brand that begins with the adjective 'Turkish'".
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