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Flying, The Turkish Way

By Aneesh Phadnis | Business Standard | 16 June 2015
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Its unique geographical advantage and smart marketing is helping the brand find global appeal. And slowly, Indians too are getting on board

When sport superstars Lionel Messi and Kobe Bryant team up to endorse a brand, it is bound to attract a lot of eyeballs. And it did, making Turkish Airlines somewhat of a Youtube star with the ad featuring the duo getting 140 million views.

But what has been an even greater achievement for the brand is the 87 per cent increase in its passengers, globally, between 2010 and 2014. The airline flew 387,000 passengers to and from India in 2014, a little more than 10 years after it entered the market.

Turkish Airlines flies to 110 countries, the most by any airline. The airline came to India in 2003 and now serves Mumbai and Delhi with daily flights to Istanbul. In India growth is restricted because of its limited traffic rights–unlike the Gulf airlines which fly to many more points in India, Turkish’s operations are confined to two cities.

To get around this, the airline is positioning Istanbul as a gateway into Europe for Asian fliers, branding Turkey as a destination for history enthusiasts and leisure travelers and building its image as a youthful airline.

“The Indian sub-continent is of utmost importance to us and the market here is growing at a staggering rate. We have started off the year on a good note with growth in sales and we expect the momentum to continue through the holiday season,” said the airline’s spokesperson in an e-mailed response.

According to Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA), Turkish Airlines traffic to/from India grew by 4.3 per cent in 2014. About 25 per cent of its traffic from India is origin-destination type and the remainder flew onward from Istanbul–nearly 55 percent to Europe (Turkish Airlines has one of the biggest networks in Europe with 102 destinations).

“It has a quality product and an extremely competitive network. The new airport in Istanbul which is due to open in 2017, with long term capacity of 150 million passengers will be central to Turkish’s aggressive growth strategy,” said Kapil Kaul of CAPA.

Istanbul straddles both Europe and Asia and is a natural and convenient hub for flights to all of Europe, most of Africa and the Gulf region. The airline is covering the distances with narrow body Boeing 737s or Airbus A320 type planes.

“Promoting its vast network is the cornerstone of Turkish Airlines’ marketing communication strategy. For years, the slogan of the airline has been ‘Globally Yours’ which emphasised its global ambition and rapid network expansion,” said Raymond Kollau, founder of Amsterdam-based market research agency airlinetrends.com.

To widen its appeal, the airline decided to associate with two modern day obsessions-food and sports. “Major sports events and stars like Drogba and Messi are not restricted to a particular nation but the game touches enthusiasts in every corner of the world. We wanted a creative piece that speaks to everyone and our commercials do just that,” the airline said.

Besides, this is in keeping with the airline’s ‘Widen Your World’ slogan which Kollau added was “the second phase of its brand build-up which is about becoming more of a lifestyle brand.”

Just as the Gulf carriers used sports to establish their global credentials Turkish seems to be doing the same. It has partnered with German football club Borussia Dortmund and sponsors the Champions League. Additionally it sponsors basketball and golf tournaments.

“Featuring Kobe Bryant also gels well the airline’s expansion into the US,” says Devesh Agarwal, editor of Bangalore Aviation, an aviation blog. Its recent marketing campaigns also emphasise the new focus on global cuisine. “From New Delhi we offer the Flying Chef service where passengers can customise their menu and we serve even Jain meals on request. On our long haul flights even a candle light dinner on plane is available,” the airline spokesperson said.

Turkish’s success is also attributed to effective utilisation of its fleet, low operating costs and high passenger loads. Its planes fly the European routes during day-time. In the evening aircraft return to Istanbul and are redeployed during the night to a good number of destinations in the East of Mediterranean to Central Asia, to the South of Russia, all the places that allow operations in night, an aviation source said.

It has overtaken Air France as the largest foreign airline in Africa in terms of destinations and its growth in the continent, mirrors the growing interest of Turkish business in Africa. In India, Turkish Airlines is a relatively young player as is Turkey as a tourist destination. Out of the over 36 million foreign tourists in 2014, the number of Indian visitors to Turkey was around 120,000, a growth of 25 percent over 2013.

According to John Nair, head, business travel, Cox & Kings, “What sets it apart is the connectivity from India to the rest of Europe and USA. Its drawback is that it flies only from Delhi and Mumbai and not South India which is the fastest growing travel region.”

This is the biggest challenge Turkish faces in India today. Also, as sources in the travel trade say, it needs to leverage its network to increase its corporate travel business while improving the on-time performance.

The airline is working on that and also paying heed to criticism that its crew needs to be more proficient in English and better trained. “It is our constant endeavor to improve our service”, the airline said; but, until then, the fliers seem to be happy to get on board.