Big Plans

Along with the likes of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar, Turkish Airlines is one of the more aggressive airlines in the world, in terms of its growth and route network expansion. So, it seemed prudent for editor Dylan Rogers to join Johannesburg General Manager Muhammed Mehdi Tunc for a coffee and a Turkish Delight at WTM Africa in Cape Town, to get more on the airline’s African plans.

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Just over a decade ago Turkish Airlines had a fairly modest African footprint, in the form of 10 destinations and a focus largely on North Africa.

Fast-forward 11 years and Turkey’s national airline is one of the big players on the African continent, flying to 34 African countries, with Juba in South Sudan the airline’s 48th and latest route.

“We are not scared of Africa,” says Muhammed Mehdi Tunc. “We know that it is different for us, but our approach to Africa goes beyond emotions and trade. It’s totally about humanity.”

In terms of product, destinations such as Casablanca, Lagos, Nairobi, Accra, Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Maputo all see the widebody A330, featuring 261 economy and 28 business class seats.

“In our 330s the business class seats are full-flat, they are wider and we have special things to make your sleep better,” says Mehdi Tunc. “Some of our aircraft have been fitted with wi-fi and we are planning to put wi-fi on all of our planes. Soon we will also offer tablets in business class.”

Turkish also makes use of the B737-900 on some of its other routes, as well as the A321, and whilst the business class seat on these aircraft don’t offer a lie-flat option, Mehdi Tunc is confident the product is not compromised.

Interestingly, premium economy is not a focus area for Turkish Airlines, but Mehdi Tunc won’t say why. What he’s more interested in talking about is the airline’s interest in South Africa, clearly a huge focus currently for Turkish Airlines.

“It is our intention to have double dailies into each of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town,” says Mehdi Tunc. “We have been really aggressive in this market over the past 3-4 years, doubling our capacity in November.”

Mehdi Tunc is also unequivocal about where in South Africa Turkish plans to focus its growth efforts.

“Jo’burg is the giant of Africa and the capital of the mining industry,” he says. “It is very important to have strong frequencies and relationships in Jo’burg. If you operate strongly in Jo’burg and South Africa, you can operate strongly in the rest of Africa. It is a tough market and we want to be the top player in the market.”

Mehdi Tunc believes there is great synergy between Turkey and South Africa, both from a cultural point of view and with regards the two countries’ currencies, which are both currently weak against the dollar.

“The weak currencies are an opportunity for business,” he says. “Your manufacturing and products – you sell it in dollars, but the costs are in rands. It’s the same for Turkey. There’s a low cost base and also a great opportunity for both countries to increase their trade business relationships.”

It goes beyond that, though, with Mehdi Tunc offering interesting insight into why his countrymen have a natural interest in South Africa and the broader African continent.

“Turkish people are very open-minded and aggressive,” he says. “If they hear good news from anywhere, they pack their bags and visit. And within a few days they can decide whether it’s a viable business destination for them.”

So, what next for Turkish Airlines, which surely must have plenty in the pipeline, particularly with regards Africa?

“The destinations that we don’t fly into are all on the table and we discuss and examine each of them,” says Mehdi Tunc. “It’s a tough decision to fly into a new destination and you can’t just step back if it doesn’t work. You have to make sure it’s going to work, and if you lose money, you lose money. That’s why we think 100 times before flying into any destination.”

Cautious they may be, but if the Turkish Airlines track record is anything to go by, it would be wise not to bet against another new African route in the near future.

It’s probably just a question of… where?