A national airline can sometimes become a tool of soft power for a country to win the hearts and the minds of the public abroad. And Turkish Airlines, even though it’s just 49% state owned since 2006, has been acting like a public entity, especially in the field of foreign policy. That comes with its own risks, though.
As of this year, Turkey became one of the top six tourist destinations in the world, and the role of Turkish Airlines on making Istanbul a global aviation hub is undeniable.
Turkish Airlines now flies to 280 international destinations in 111 countries, with a country coverage greater than any other airline in the world. The target of the company is to grow its network of countries by 10-15% each year. As of December, Turkish Airlines will start flights to Mauritius in Madagascar and to Zaporizhia in Ukraine with a frequency of four times per week, while direct flights to Atlanta in the US will be launched by May 2016. As of November, the number of aircraft in the Turkish Airlines fleet was 298, which is expected to reach 300 by January. The airline was founded in 1933 with a modest fleet of just five planes.
During the first ten months of this year, the company carried 51.8mn passengers, an increase of 12.1% compared with a year earlier. Moreover, in the same period the company transported 581,708 tonnes of cargo. This helped the airline to a net profit of TRY2.376bn (€773mn) for the first nine months of this year. By 2023, the centenary of the foundation of Turkish Republic, Turkish Airlines expects to carry 120mn passengers, make $24bn and have a fleet of more than 450 aircraft.
Paying attention to the quality of its services, the airline, which is a member of Star Alliance – the world’s largest airline group – has been ranked by Skytrax as the “Best Airline in Europe” for the fifth consecutive year.
Coinciding with its motto, “globally yours”, the company employs 776 foreign pilots from about 50 different countries and 25 foreign cabin attendants. Turkish Airlines has also a partnership and title-sponsorship agreement with Euroleague Basketball through 2020.
This kind of expansion by the airline has been welcomed by investors, even through the turbulence and economic slowdown of the past few years. Since the start of 2013, the shares have risen over 340% on the Borsa Istanbul to trade at TRY7.86 on December 1.
Its customers may not always be aware of the company’s influence on their way of perceiving Turkey, however the increase in direct flights to foreign countries creates an emotional attachment that enhances the perception about Turkey through the promotion of its culture, national brand and foreign policy. “The physical accessibility is a significant dimension in developing bilateral relations with target countries on political, business and cultural terms. Turkish Airlines is flying to 29 countries and 46 different cities in Africa, in parallel with the increase of the number of Turkish diplomatic missions and economic investments on the continent,” Ali Genc, senior vice president-media relations, tells bne IntelliNews.
For example, Turkey has presently 39 embassies and four consulate generals in Africa, up from only 12 embassies in 2008. “We proudly want to fly to each destination where the Turkish flag flies. For this purpose, we are constantly in dialogue with different ministries to complement our country’s opening up to these countries,” Genc says.
The more Turkey provides direct flights to different countries of the world, the greater potential for trade and the more tourists prefer coming to Turkey, making the country’s foreign policy more sustainable and credible.
Turkey’s lifting of visa requirements for most Middle Eastern countries and the development of commercial ties, including investments on infrastructure both in the region and the African continent, reflect this activism. The November 29 conditional agreement by the EU to grant Turkey the long-sought-after visa-free travel to Europe's Schengen zone within a year could provide the airline with another big boost.
The increased presence of Turkish Airlines around the world was illustrated by a famous ad campaign starring Lionel Messi and Kobe Bryant last year, reaching over 138mn views on YouTube and becoming the most watched ad of the year.
However, this expansion and closeness to Turkish foreign policy brings its own set of problems, including making it a target for sanctions, security threats and a corporate fragility linked to Turkey’s diplomatic engagement in instable crisis zones around the world.
Genc told Today that Russia’s imminent sanctions on Turkey over the downing of a jet fighter over Syria will have big ramifications for the airline, given it recently overtook Lufthansa to become the biggest foreign carrier serving Russia. “If there is fall in numbers with Russia, we are ready to increase flights and frequencies to other destinations in other countries to compensate for the decrease,” Genc said. The sanctions would still mean the suspension of “great potential for growth”, he added.
In terms of security threats, on November 20 seven Turkish Airlines staff members were rescued after Al-Qaeda-linked militants from Al-Murabitun stormed a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako and killed 19 people. Similarly, in August 2013 two Turkish Airlines pilots were held hostage in Beirut in a retaliatory abduction, before being freed as part of a prisoner swap. “Under the coordination of our Risk Evaluation Unit, we are taking all necessary measures to protect the security of our passengers and our crew flying to the conflict zones around the world. Sometimes we had to divert the flight track,” says Genc.
The global coverage of Turkish Airlines has also contributed to Turkey’s soft power in economic terms. Direct accessibility encourages people to prefer Turkey over traveling to farther destinations. In particular, Turkey’s health tourism industry has great potential to attract more foreign visitors. With the support of the Ministry of Economy, Turkish Airlines recently announced that it will give a 50% transportation discount for international tourists coming to the country for medical treatment.
Direct flights also will help bilateral trade between Turkey and other countries. “On the basis of our calculations, launching direct flights between two countries increases the mutual trade volume by 10- to 20-fold within one or two years’ time. The case of Kenya, as part of Turkey’s Africa opening, is very inspiring in this regard,” Genc notes.
Before Turkish Airlines’ direct flights to Kenya, the East African nation exported to Turkey via European cities, incurring double taxation. However, direct flights to Nairobi and Mombasa provided Kenyan businesspeople with the opportunity to export goods to Turkey directly, while Turkey’s annual exports to Kenya have reached about $76mn.
It is crystal-clear that Turkey's foreign policy has enhanced the growing business of Turkish Airlines, while vice versa the company’s expansion around the world has been functioning as a second track diplomacy to boost Turkey’s prestige and national brand.