Bilal Ekşi, CEO, general manager and member of the board, of Turkish Airlines is bullish on the airline’s future as it emerges from pandemic challenges. Before taking the helm of the airline, he served as the head of overhaul workshops (maintenance) for the airline before becoming chief ground operations officer and later chief production officer for Turkish Technic.
Ekşi later served as the director general of civil aviation for Turkey and serves as a member of the Council of International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). His decades of experience in aviation positions the Star Alliance-member airline well for unstable economic times. He shares how the airline handled pandemic challenges and an airline update on where he sees the carrier transforming in the coming years.
How did Turkish adapt capacity during the pandemic?
During the pandemic, international passenger traffic slowed, but domestic demand played an important role for the airline. While international passenger numbers only reached 25% of 2019 levels, domestic passenger traffic reached 72%. The airline carried 2.64 billion domestic passengers and 1.85 billion international passengers in 2019. Compare that with 2021 when the carrier flew a total of 1.78 billion domestic passengers and only 511 million on international flights. Domestic business became very important.
The revenue losses of 2020 and 2021 melted the profits of the past seven years, but recovery is on the way. At the moment, the Americas have been a leading region for recovery. Turkish increased its capacity by 8.6% compared to 2019 and added several new destinations. In the first quarter of 2022, our most in-demand markets in North America have been New York, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles.
Total fourth-quarter revenue from 2021 exceeded that of the same quarter in 2019. For the entire year, 2021 revenue reached 81% of 2019 numbers generating $10.7 billion.
How did cargo factor into recovery plans?
By taking agile action against the decrease in passenger traffic and disruptions in the supply chain, Turkish Airlines transformed more than 30 passenger planes for cargo operations and rose to fifth place in the 2021 global ranking for cargo, excluding integrators. The amount of cargo carried in 2021 increased by 21.7% compared to 2019. In this period, we served 98 airports in 72 countries by freighter aircraft.
Cargo revenue almost tripled in the fourth quarter of 2021 and more than doubled in 2021, compared to the same periods of 2019 and reached $4 billion for all of last year. In this period, Turkish Airlines managed to reduce operational expenses by 25.6% compared to 2019, resulting in a net profit of $959 million.
Are there any new destinations on the drawling board?
In 2021, we expanded to nine new destinations: Newark and Dallas/Fort Worth, USA; Vancouver, Canada; Urmia, Iran; Turkistan and Aktau, Kazakhstan; Fergana and Urgench, Uzbekistan; and Luanda, Angola.
This year, the airline launched Cebu, Philippines and Seattle/Tacoma, USA, which became the 12th U.S. gateway and the airline’s 335th destination. New cities planned for the network include Denver and Detroit, USA; Sialkot, Pakistan; and Juba, South Sudan pending market conditions.
This year, the airline debuted a global advertising campaign during Super Bowl LVI, starring Morgan Freeman, showcasing the airline’s route map, which offers flights to more countries than any other airline on the planet.
Has Turkish brought back full onboard service?
Turkish Airlines is known for award-winning cuisine and Turkish hospitality, but in line with additional coronavirus-related measures in 2020, the airline made temporary changes to meal services on flights. As of May 2021 and in accordance with health protocols, Turkish Airlines has returned to offering full premium menus prepared with fresh ingredients from Turkish DO & CO.
The Flying Chefs program offered on all long-distance flights (and some short distance flights), has resumed, too, giving passengers the chance to feel like they are dining in a restaurant above the clouds. Turkish was the first airline to offer business class candlelight dining on flights of eight hours or longer.
What are the future fleet plans for Turkish Airlines?
The airline currently hass one of the world’s youngest and most modern fleets considering its size. We have 371 aircraft (247 narrow-body and 104 wide-body planes) along with 20 cargo aircraft. In 2021, three wide-body and 18 narrow-body aircraft joined the fleet with more Airbus A321neo, A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes on the way. The 15 B787-9 Dreamliners and six A350-900 flying from various U.S. and other long-haul destinations feature the airline’s newest business class product.
When do you think the flight network will be fully restored?
Due to ongoing effects from the pandemic and various country restrictions, especially in the Far East, it will take some time. The current network and capacity are constantly adjusted to market conditions, which means the network re-balances itself based on demand. Some markets, like North America, are doing better than before the pandemic. According to the latest, the airline reached 91% of total capacity in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the same period of 2019. In North America, capacity jumped to 142% compared to the same period in 2019, confirming that the Americas are will play an important role in economic recovery.