LONDON — Fifteen years ago, Turkish Airlines was one of those carriers that you didn’t fly unless you really had no other option. Elderly aircraft, indifferent customer service and a distinctly patchy safety record all made discerning passengers shy away from the Istanbul-based carrier.

Today the company is booming. In February it took delivery of its 300th aircraft (an Airbus A330-300) and expects to add no fewer than 39 new aircraft by the end of the year. It flies to 284 destinations and this month recorded its largest-ever net profit, $1.69 billion.

It has been named ‘Best Airline in Europe’ five years running in the Skytrax World Airline Awards and is said to be the one airline that makes even the Persian Gulf ‘Big Three’ nervous.
The national carrier’s upswing is just one piece in a jigsaw of aviation ambitions being assembled by the Turkish government. Like some of the Gulf states, it has realized that aviation can be a powerful economic driver. The country’s airlines, airports and aviation manufacturers are all benefiting.

The country is one of the MINT group – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey – that is deemed by economists to be the next wave of rising young economies that will become major players some years down the line. A wave of confidence can be felt in the country and aerospace is riding that wave. Last year, the government announced plans to set up an airliner industry, starting with an updated version of the Dornier 328 30-seater (both turboprop and turbofan models) to be followed by 2023 by a clean-sheet ‘628’ design for the 50 to 70-seat market.

Like the Gulf states, Turkey has the advantage of geography. Since ancient times the country has been the bridge between Asia and Europe. And, with the airline industry’s center of gravity moving steadily east and south, Turkey sees the opportunity to get in on the act pioneered by the Gulf Arab states.

Istanbul’s Ataturk International airport is already a major hub, but Turkish Airlines’ rapid expansion – it has grown by an average of 17% per year over the past decade – has overwhelmed it. Anyone using the airport today finds it almost permanently packed with travellers.

To cope, Turkey is building a new airport to the northwest of Istanbul. Due to open in 2018, this will have an initial capacity of 85-90 million. (Ataturk recorded 57.9 million users in 2014, well above its design capacity.)

A second terminal at the new airport will open in 2019 and, if the full, four-phase expansion plan is realised, by 2030 the new airport will have four terminals, six runways and a capacity of 150 million passengers annually.

Meanwhile, Sabiha Gökçen, Istanbul’s secondary airport, is planned to receive a second runway. At 4000 meters long, it will be able to handle the largest airliners on the market.
Elsewhere in Turkey’s airline landscape, low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines is also becoming a substantial European player, ranging as far afield as the UK. Currently a Boeing 737 operator with more than 60 in service, this year will see it start to transition to a fleet of up to 100 Airbus A320neo and A321neo.

One of the factors behind the rise of Turkish Airlines has been the considerable focus placed on upgrading the customer service aspect – the airline has won several awards for its standard of food in economy class. (Having sampled it several times, this writer can confirm that it’s not bad.)

Turkish is expanding rapidly, particularly in Africa, with CEO Temel Kotil on record as saying that he wants his company to develop the largest airline network on that continent. He believes that the long-awaited surge in African middle-class prosperity will happen soon and he wants to be there when it does.

By October last year, Turkish was flying to 45 African destinations and those numbers continue to rise. As well as expanding into relatively major cities such as Durban in South Africa, recent additions to the route map have included less well-known points such as Cotonou (Benin), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) and Antananarivo (Madagascar).

Interestingly, Turkish is also muscling in on the home bases of the major Arabian carriers. It recorded a 9.2% rise in passenger numbers to the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) last year. It has, for example, 21 flights a week between Istanbul and Dubai, with more planned imminently. Abu Dhabi is now served daily.

No wonder the Gulf carriers are starting to look over their shoulders.