Turkish Airlines CEO Bilal Eksi
Turkish Airlines CEO Bilal Eksi. Enhancing passenger experience is at the core of expansion at the airline, he says. Image Credit: Supplied

The growth of Turkish Airlines has been phenomenal. Starting in 1933 with five aircraft, Turkey’s national carrier now has a fleet of 458 and plans to double it in 10 years. Flying to more than 120 countries from its hub in Istanbul, it has earned the title of the airline that links the most number of destinations non-stop from a single airport.

More honours arrived at the 2024 World Airline Awards. Turkish Airlines was named Best Airline in Europe for the ninth time by Skytrax, and the carrier also won two other top awards: World’s Best Business Class Catering and Best Airline in Southern Europe.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, CEO Bilal Eksi talks about the secret behind the success of Turkish Airlines and its ambitious growth plan and expansion strategy.

How did Turkish Airlines become the third busiest airline in Europe after Ryanair and easyJet?

The aviation industry has seen significant growth, particularly since the easing of travel restrictions following the pandemic. At Turkish Airlines, we are proud to have established ourselves as one of the busiest airlines in Europe. Turkish Airlines was the leading non-LCC [Low-Cost-Carriers] by passengers in 2023. We were at the top of the list in Europe among network carriers, with 83.4 million [passengers last year].

Our success stems from a robust strategy focused on growth and adaptability. We’ve expanded our fleet and modernised our facilities, while Istanbul’s strategic location as the heart of Turkey has been pivotal in connecting a global network of travellers.

Furthermore, our strategic partnerships and codeshare agreements with airlines across Europe and Asia have played a crucial role in our growth trajectory. Such cooperative arrangements have not only expanded our network but also boosted Istanbul Airport’s significance as a premier transit point between Europe and Asia.

Turkish Airline Box

Did the Turkish tourism industry help Turkish Airlines grow? How?

The growth of Turkish Airlines has been significantly influenced by the vibrant tourism industry in Turkey. The influx of tourists has fuelled our expansion, with Istanbul’s strategic position as an aviation hub and the modern Istanbul Airport (IST) playing key roles. Our focus on providing a wide range of travel options, competitive pricing, and excellent service aligns with the positive economic effects of tourism, which in turn fosters an environment conducive to our airline’s success. While international inbound tourism by air transportation is almost 60% globally, three out of every four foreigners visiting Turkey prefer airways. This makes tourism and commercial civil aviation mutually important.

Our proactive efforts in promoting Turkey’s tourism, alongside collaborations with various organisations, have strengthened our global brand presence and enhanced Turkey’s international image. This synergy between tourism and our airline’s operations underscores the importance of each destination we serve in contributing to the nation’s tourism potential and Turkish Airlines’ growth.

What’s Touristanbul launched by Turkish Airlines? Has it helped in attracting more passengers?

Touristanbul is a complimentary service that we offer to passengers with layovers of six to 24 hours at Istanbul Airport. It is an embodiment of our hospitality and our desire to showcase the best of Istanbul. The programme includes eight different tours, each crafted to accommodate various layover durations, allowing passengers to visit some of Istanbul’s most iconic historical sites, such as the Sultanahmet Mosque, Ayasofya [Hagia Sophia] Mosque, and Dolmabahçe Palace.

The response to Touristanbul has been overwhelmingly positive. Not only does it provide travellers with an opportunity to experience the rich culture and culinary delights of Istanbul, but it also serves as a strategic tool that has contributed to an increase in passenger numbers for Turkish Airlines. By converting what would be idle transit time into an enriching cultural adventure, we have enhanced our competitive edge and made Turkish Airlines the preferred choice for international travellers seeking more than just a flight but a memorable journey.

Touristanbul has attracted more passengers, as it adds significant value to their travel experience with us.

Bilal Eksi Box

Please elaborate on the plans to expand operations in the near future? New planes, more flights, new routes?

In alignment with our 10-year fleet plan, we are set to increase our fleet size significantly. We have placed a substantial order with Airbus, including up to 150 A321neos, 60 A350-900s, 15 A350-1000s, and 5 A350F freighters. In addition, we continue our negotiations with aircraft manufacturers for our wide-body and narrow-body aircraft needs. This move is a strategic step towards our goal of expanding our fleet to 813 aircraft by 2033.

But our vision extends beyond just increasing the number of aircraft. We are also set to broaden our network by adding new routes, providing our customers with more travel options and connectivity. Enhancing the passenger experience is at the core of our expansion, which includes upgrading the cabins on existing jets to ensure a more comfortable journey across our fleet.

Our growth is not just about scaling operations; it’s about making a positive impact. We aim to contribute significantly to Turkey’s economy and create more employment opportunities. Our plans are projected to add $140 billion to the economy and increase our workforce to 150,000 employees. Every step we take is designed to ensure that flying with Turkish Airlines is an integral part of a memorable journey, not just a means to reach a destination.

Please give us some insight into the discussions with Airbus and Boeing regarding the order for 230 planes.

In order to reach the 2033 strategic goal of a fleet of more than 800 aircraft, our orders from Airbus alone are not enough if there are fleet renewals in our current fleet. We are therefore evaluating an order for 150 narrow bodies and 75 wide bodies from Boeing.

While we are aware of the challenges Boeing is currently facing, we maintain a balanced approach between the two manufacturers and are not in a rush to finalise the decision. Our priority is to ensure that any addition to our fleet supports our long-term operational goals and the high standards of service our passengers expect from Turkish Airlines.

What is the strategy for aircraft configuration? Wide-body or narrow-body aircraft? And why?

As new-generation aircraft enter our fleet, the old-generation aircraft in our current fleet will continue to retire. Starting from 2022, the retrofit cabin transformation projects we have launched in the Turkish Airlines and Ajet fleet aim to offer a more comfortable travel experience to our passengers. We provide more seat capacity by renewing the interior design of our current aircraft. At the same time, the interiors of our aircraft are modernised, and a more contemporary appearance is achieved.

In line with our strategic goal of becoming the most prestigious brand in the global airline industry, we ensure seat standardisation in the aircraft in our fleet. We need to keep our product standards above a certain level. We aim to provide our passengers with a better travel experience with the renewed cabins. Together with our subsidiary, Turkish Cabin Interior Systems Inc. (TCI), we are developing our products in an innovative and competitive manner for seats and in-flight entertainment systems. We aim to reduce CO2 emissions by reducing aircraft weight with new materials. We also ensure uninterrupted communication for our passengers with the installation of in-flight internet systems (IFC).

How do you plan to finance the ambitious growth and expansion strategy, especially with the target of doubling the fleet to 800 aircraft by 2033?

As Turkish Airlines embarks on its ambitious growth and expansion strategy, including doubling its fleet to over 800 aircraft by 2033, our financing approach remains prudent and well-considered. We recognise the importance of maintaining financial stability while pursuing our vision.

Our strategy involves leveraging operational efficiency, driving strategic revenue growth, practising cost discipline, diversifying financing sources, and investing in sustainable practices. By adhering to these principles, we aim to achieve our long-term objectives, enhance our global presence, and continue providing exceptional service to our passengers.

Is air travel demand sustainable at current levels?

Thanks to solid and persistent demand for air transportation, traffic has caught up with 2019 levels, and profitability has returned to the industry at the end of four years. The airline industry matched 2019 levels of Revenue Passenger Kilometres (RPKs) as of February 2024. This year, a 11.6% growth is expected in total RPKs and an increase of 10.4% in the number of global passengers.

Most regions are expected to climb above 2019 levels in 2024, and most countries will experience continuous growth.

There was a huge pent-up demand for travel, and as people began to travel for business, education, and leisure, global connectivity was being restored.

In the competitive UAE-Turkey routes, what does Turkish Airlines offer to passengers?

As the airline that travels to more countries and international destinations than any other in the world, we offer an unparalleled breadth of experiences for flyers while making their journey extraordinary and unforgettable.

Our guests can enjoy in-flight entertainment options, enjoy a diverse culinary affair like a fine-dining restaurant above the clouds, feel the privilege of the Turkish Airlines lounge that promises a special experience, earn miles through our Miles & Smiles programme for frequent trips, and more.

One of the privileges offered by Turkish Airlines to UAE passengers is one or two nights’ accommodation in Istanbul within the stopover programme. Additionally, an Exclusive Drive service is offered to business class passengers travelling from the UAE to the USA. Transportation is provided to the desired point within 35 miles of any point in America.

Instead of seeing the competition from the Gulf region as a threat, we consider it an opportunity to constantly improve ourselves and provide higher standards of service.

Furthermore, we ensure our passengers in the UAE and Turkey enjoy our special offers and student discounts. Those wanting to travel with the best fare can also hold the price for a small fee, which will be refunded later.

Tell us about Turkish Airlines’ operations in the Gulf. Do you see this demand evolving?

Turkish Airlines has a significant presence and operations in the Gulf, serving numerous destinations across countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman. We operate frequent flights connecting major Gulf cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Jeddah, and others to our hub in Istanbul, providing seamless connections with our extensive global network.

The demand for air travel in the Gulf has historically been robust due to factors such as economic growth, business travel, tourism, and a burgeoning expat population. Turkish Airlines has capitalised on this demand by offering competitive fares, convenient flight schedules, and a world-class travel experience. However, demand patterns have evolved in response to various factors such as economic conditions, geopolitical developments, travel restrictions, and changes in consumer preferences.

Air traffic in the Middle East jumped to 33.3% in 2023. Demand is set to grow further in the UAE’s aviation sector, in line with its recent investment in opening the new terminal building of Abu Dhabi International Airport; Dubai Airports hosted 87 million passengers in 2023, surpassing pre-pandemic numbers.

Turkish Airlines is well-positioned to adapt to this evolving demand in the Gulf, given our strong brand reputation, extensive route network, and flexibility in adjusting flight frequencies and capacities based on market conditions.

How has AJet performed since its rebranding and launch? Will it expand operations to the UAE and the region?

Previously called AnadoluJet, AJet has shown promising performance since its launch and rebranding. The airline is focusing on enhancing its route network, improving customer experiences, and optimising operational efficiency. Building on its renowned history of reuniting 150 million passengers with their loved ones in 16 years, we’re confident AJet will continue to bring people together, catering to the needs of regional travellers while maintaining Turkish Airlines’ high standards of service.

We officially opened ticket sales in March 2024, and we’re set to fly to 44 countries this summer with a target of 200 aircraft within the next ten years.

Considering the conflict in the Middle East, do you anticipate any medium-term impact on Turkish Airlines’ operations?

Despite the challenges stemming from the geopolitical conflict in the Middle East, Turkish Airlines remains optimistic about its medium-term outlook. Leveraging our extensive experience in navigating complex geopolitical environments, we’re poised to maintain our strong global presence and continue serving as a connecting bridge between the East and West. With a focus on innovation, efficiency, and customer-centricity, Turkish Airlines is committed to overcoming obstacles and seizing opportunities for growth in the dynamic aviation landscape of the region and beyond.

Turkish Airlines Cargo has become the world’s fourth-largest air cargo carrier. What is the strategy?

Turkish Cargo, our air cargo brand, ranked third among the world’s leading air cargo carriers in May 2024, overtaking top brands in America, Europe, and the Far East. This is well in alignment with our 10-year strategic plan, which was formed during our 100th anniversary. One of the goals was to double cargo volume and position Turkish Cargo among the top three cargo carriers globally by 2033.

This remarkable milestone underscores our commitment to excellence, innovation, and customer satisfaction. Through strategic network expansion, investments in modern infrastructure, and a relentless focus on operational efficiency, Turkish Cargo has emerged as a powerhouse in the global air cargo industry. We expect continued success by combining our wide range of services and operational capabilities with the unique geographical advantages of our hub in Turkey.

What does the future hold for Turkish Airlines?

The future for Turkish Airlines is one defined by steady growth, innovation, and a commitment to excellence. Building upon our century-long legacy of connecting cultures and bridging continents, we envision further expansion of our global network, offering passengers seamless travel experiences to destinations across the world. Embracing technological advancements, we aim to enhance operational efficiency and passenger satisfaction through digital solutions and personalised services.

We aim to expand our fleet to 800 aircraft by 2033 as part of our 100th Anniversary Strategy. Despite a number of challenges with regards to aircraft production and procurement, we’ve increased our number of aircraft by 12% to 440 in 2023, which demonstrates our commitment to our ambitious growth targets. This substantial increase in fleet size also showcases our unwavering dedication to solidifying Turkish Airlines’ position as a leading global carrier.

We will also continue to strengthen our sustainability journey, implementing eco-friendly initiatives to reduce our environmental footprint and contribute to a greener future for aviation. As we navigate the ever-evolving landscape of the global aviation sector, our focus remains on providing unparalleled service, fostering partnerships, and embracing change to ensure Turkish Airlines continues to soar to new heights in the years to come.