Interview: Turkish Airlines Chairman Dr. Ahmet Bolat

Prof. Dr. Ahmet Bolat describes how a truly global airline continues to recover amid the COVID-19 pandemic.



May 22, 2022

DALLAS - Turkish Airlines (TK), like the Bosphorus, represents a dynamic gateway connecting east and west, bridging continents and cultures around the world.

The airline took to the skies as the State Airlines Administration on May 20, 1933. Fesan Evrensev, Turkey's first aviator and chief executive, led the nascent carrier with just 30 personnel and five planes.

The Turkish flag carrier flew its maiden overseas flight from Istanbul to Athens in 1947. In 1951, the airline expanded its fleet to 33 aircraft and began flying to additional locations including Nicosia, Beirut, and Cairo. In 1955, the carrier took the name Turkish Airlines and gained its ranks alongside the members of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

In an exclusive interview with Airways, Prof. Dr. Ahmet Bolat, Chairman of the Board and Executive Committee at Turkish Airlines, described how a truly global airline continues to recover amid the COVID-19 pandemic with an emphasis on fleet and route development.

Dr. Bolat, who assumed his role in January 2022, presents an insightful and optimistic view on the ability of the airline to capture passenger growth in the coming years.

Brent Foster (BF) To better understand scale, how many routes are in the Turkish Airlines network? Does Turkish Airlines currently have the largest route network in the world?

Ahmet Bolat (AB) With 128 countries, 331 cities and 336 destinations in our flight network, we fly to the most countries and most international destinations than any other airline in the world. In 2021, we expanded our flight network by adding nine new destinations. Moreover, we added Cebu to our network in 2022, and will start Seattle (U.S.) flights in coming days.

BF Airlines around the world cut routes at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. What percentage of routes cut by Turkish Airlines due to the pandemic has been reinstated?

AB We continue to reactivate our flight network with the acceleration of vaccination activities around the world and the gradual removal of restrictions after the shrinking demand as a result of the increase of the effect of the pandemic in 2020. In the first quarter of 2022, we reached 91% of the same period of 2019 in total capacity. Currently, we actively fly to 91% of countries and 81% of destinations in our flight network.

A Boeing 787-9, one of the new-generation wide-body aircraft in the Turkish Airlines fleet. Photo: Ryan Scottini/Airways

BF Turkish Airlines recently announced flights to Seattle, will the airline focus on adding more passenger routes across the Americas?

AB We fly to 22 destinations in the Americas. (N. America: 14, Central and South America: 8 destinations) In addition to the Seattle, we are planning to start scheduled flights to Denver and Detroit in the coming period depending on the opportunities and market conditions.

BF Turkish Airlines has a robust route network on the African continent, has the network helped the airline aid COVID-19 relief efforts in Africa? Does the airline anticipate adding more frequencies or new routes to Africa?

AB Africa is one of the most important markets for us. We are in a strong position in the African region with our flight network and connectivity opportunities. In terms of the number of destinations served, we are the airline that serves the most destinations, excluding African airlines. As of now, there are 61 destinations in 40 countries in our African flight network. As of June 2022, we will start Juba flights in South Sudan.

Due to the flight restrictions applied in the region and in our country during the pandemic, the number of passengers decreased in 2020 and reached 57% of the 2019 level by the end of 2021. In this period, although there was a 34% decrease in available seat km supplied to the African region, there was an increase of 12.1% in revenue yield (R/Y).

BF With a growing and robust long-haul fleet, is Turkish Airlines considering an introduction of flights to Australia?

AB In the past, we had different studies for the Australian market. It does not seem likely at the moment that we will be able to fly directly to the Australian market with the current aircraft types in an optimal way. We will make a reappraisal after new-generation aircraft such as the B777X and ultra-long-range A350, which will be released in the coming years.

On the other hand, we have very good codeshare agreements for the Australian market, even though we do not fly there at the moment. However, adding a new continent to our flight network depending on new generation ultra-range aircraft availability and favorable market conditions would be highly exciting for us of course.

A Turkish Airlines Airbus A350-941, a new-generation wide-body aircraft offering a unique business class experience. Photo: Turkish Airlines

BF Where does Turkish Airlines see the greatest potential for international route development?

AB When we examine the international market, the first region that catches our attention is the Far East. The Far-east Asian market has huge potential and we are not yet at the point we want to be due to slot problems in this market. Our main goal in the future is to fly to more destinations in China and India and to increase the frequency of the current destinations.

On the other hand, we want to increase our market share Europe, especially with Anadolujet. In addition, we continue our growth with new destinations and frequency increases in the North America region, which led our operational recovery in 2021.

BF Is Turkish Airlines considering adding long-haul routes from more Turkish cities in addition to Istanbul?

AB We plan to further increase our potential at Istanbul Airport, which differs from hubs of similar scale with the advantage of its geographical location and the capacity opportunities it offers. As a full-service airline, our hub plays an important role in our operations, as our home for the passenger experience, which we aim to keep at the highest level from the beginning of the journey. Therefore, we will continue our long-haul flights from here.

On the other hand, we aim to deepen the market with AnadoluJet, with which we have expanded international destinations in 2020. With this expansion, we continue to expand its flight network from different hubs in the short and medium range.

BF What continent pairings are common among passengers transiting through Istanbul on Turkish Airlines?

AB Europe-Far East and Europe-Middle East region pairs are at the forefront in international-to-international passenger transfer with Istanbul connections.

BF Does Turkish Airlines anticipate that international transit through Istanbul or tourism in Turkey will play a greater role in airline growth?

AB We believe that both of them will play very important roles in the growth of our Incorporation. Most of the foreigners who come to Turkey prefer the air route. While the rate of those who preferred the air route among the tourists coming to our country was 76% before the pandemic, this rate rose to 82% in 2021. The tourism sector is experiencing a rapid recovery in our country.

The number of tourists coming to Turkey is expected to reach and exceed the 2019 level in 2022-2023. We are making our plans in line with this foresight, and we are increasing the number of domestic and international flights, especially to our tourism regions such as Antalya, Bodrum and Dalaman. Thus, I think that as the national flag carrier airline of our country, we will benefit from this growth to the maximum extent.

In addition to tourism-related growth, the international transfer passenger market is a very important customer segment for us. While the number of international-to-international transfer passengers made up 56% of the total number of international passengers in 2019, this rate has reached 58% as of the end of the first quarter of 2022.

When we look at the reports on air traffic forecasts, the passenger traffic (RPK) passing over Turkey is expected to almost double in 20 years. Indeed, this is an indication that the importance of the international transfer passenger market to Turkish Airlines will increase even more.

Turkish Airlines operates all long-haul routes out of Istanbul Airport. Photo: Turkish Airlines

BF Will pilot hiring and training at Turkish Airlines keep pace with fleet development as the airline receives new aircraft?

AB As long as Turkish Airlines continued to grow, it met its needs with pilots both trained in the cadet program and employed directly. With the increase in our passenger and cargo revenues, as well as our positive forecasts for the future, we recently started again our Cadet program, which we took a break from due to the pandemic.

We are training some of our pilot candidates who are waiting for type training so that they will participate in flights at the beginning of 2023. In addition, we will increase the capacity of the Turkish Airlines Flight Academy, located in Aydın Çıldır, by considering the second runway. Thus, in keeping with our growth, we will continue to meet our needs with both our Cadet program and direct-entry pilot employment when necessary.

BF Has the introduction of narrow-body aircraft like the Boeing 737 MAX 9 and the Airbus A321neo enabled Turkish Airlines to serve long-range routes with lower passenger volume and reach new international markets?

AB These new generation narrow-body aircraft provide significant advantages, especially in fuel consumption when compared to similar aircraft. In addition, these high-comfort aircraft equipped with new technologies also contribute significantly to our customer satisfaction. Specific to our flight network, we are currently operating short and medium-range flights with the relevant aircraft types within the scope of our airline's safety and security rules.

The Boeing 737-9 MAX and Airbus A321neo aircraft types can be evaluated in new destinations within the determined short and medium range. Currently, we do not have a flight plan with less passenger capacity on our long-haul flights.

The business class seats on the Airbus A350-941 and Boeing 787-9 are arranged in a 1-2-1 lineup. Photo: Turkish Airlines

BF How will new aircraft deliveries help Turkish Airlines meet sustainability goals and improve the overall passenger experience?

AB As Turkish Airlines, with a fleet of 372 aircraft, including 248 narrow-body, 104 wide-body, and 20 cargo aircraft, we are the 9th largest airline company in the world in terms of fleet size among passenger airlines. At the same time, considering the size of the fleet, we have one of the youngest and most modern aircraft fleets in the world.

As of now, there are 79 new generation aircraft in our fleet, and we plan to continue operations by increasing this number in the coming years. The new generation aircraft, which have the latest technology, are environmentally friendly and save an average of 15% fuel compared to their equivalent aircraft, which will contribute significantly to the goal of reducing carbon and noise emissions.

We offer our passengers different flight experiences with the Business Class Cabin design of 15 B787-9 Dreamliners and 6 A350-900 new-generation wide-body aircraft, which we currently use in various destinations in the USA and other long-haul markets.

Turkish Airlines offers a unique business class experience on the B787 and A350 aircraft in its fleet. This concept in the 1-2-1 lineup also reflects the company's new corporate identity called “flow”. While allocating high privacy as well as providing aisle access to all passengers, the brand-new designed seats can be fully reclined with one touch of a button.

All of these privileged elements and many more differentiate Turkish Airlines from other airlines, and turn each journey of our passengers into an exclusive brand-new experience that could not be forgotten.

Excellent. Thank you, Dr. Bolat, for sharing your time and insights with Airways.

Featured image: Prof. Dr. Ahmet Bolat, Chairman of the Board and Executive Committee at Turkish Airlines. Photo: Turkish Airlines