Prof. Dr. Ahmet Bolat, Chairman of the Board and the Executive Committee of Turkish Airlines, says diversity will support the continued growth of the carrier. Interview by Graham Newton
Will the airline resume its strong growth or is this a time for caution?
During the first phase of the pandemic, we had conversations with the manufacturers to delay deliveries, and we adjusted some of our orders, such as reducing the number of Airbus A350s. We had to make sure we didn’t have over-capacity in the market. But we also knew the issues were temporary, and we worked hard not to make cuts that would affect our recovery.
It worked. In 2021, we posted record profits. And in 2022, our performance promises to be as good, if not better. This year, we will take delivery of six Airbus A350s and we have Boeing 737 MAXs on order too. The order book is still quite aggressive.
So, there is no doubt that we will continue to grow.
How important is Istanbul Airport to your success and what lessons can the industry learn from your relationship with them?
The new Istanbul Airport was a huge investment, and we recognize that not many governments are willing or capable of spending that much today. There were not many countries building an airport like Istanbul at the time and there will be even fewer for the foreseeable future.
The new airport made travel much easier, and it is a huge boost for our business. Essentially, it has allowed us to double our operations. It also reduced queues everywhere—at check-in, immigration, even for taxis. We didn’t have enough gates before and now we have 143 with bridges. If you’re transiting, you don’t want to be getting on a bus back to the terminal and then bussed back out again. The vision for the airport was excellent and it is vital to our growth.
Let’s face it, even if you did want to build an airport like that today, it would cost you at least double.
There is no secret to this. We had a vision and we worked very closely with everybody involved in building the new airport. We were consulted at every stage. Our airline represents about 80% of traffic at Istanbul Airport so all parties understood that collaboration on every aspect of the facility was essential.
Are airline partnerships back on the agenda or has the crisis forced more isolated thinking?
The industry is still in recovery mode, which is why partnerships and deals are a little slow at the moment.
But I don’t think the crisis has affected airline strategies. It still makes sense to partner with an airline that can complement your network. Everybody benefits, including the passenger. They get access to more destinations, and they get a lower fare too because an airline won’t have all the costs associated with setting up new destinations.
How important has cargo become and what changes do we need in this crucial sector?
We’ve always invested in cargo. On the freighter side, we have Airbus A330s capable of carrying about 80 tons from Istanbul to New York and Boeing 777s that can get more than 100 tons to Los Angeles. We also have the premier cargo facility in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. We invested $400 million in the facility and are already thinking about expansion.
The $1.4 billion profit in 2021 was made possible in part by our cargo arm. In that sense, cargo’s importance isn’t new. It has always been high on our agenda.
Going forward, we are making progress on digitization, but regulations have to keep pace with new technology otherwise a lot of the potential is wasted. And we should anticipate future crises and look closely at the temporary conversion of passenger aircraft into cargo aircraft. There is work to be done there to ensure safety and efficiency for all parties.
What are you doing regarding diversity and inclusion?
We are committed to ensuring at least 25% of our managers are female by 2025 in line with the IATA program. Already, in 95 of our international destinations there are women at manager level. There are several female senior vice presidents too and we have almost always had at least one female board member. Our plans are to naturally increase the number of women in the years ahead.
This all seems very normal to me, I have five children, including four daughters. I know the value they can bring as they are all extremely capable and well educated. For me, it is not about diversity of perspective. It is about intelligent insight and excellent business decisions and accessing that wherever it is available.
We are not doing diversity because we should. We are doing it because we want to succeed.
Can we reach net zero emissions by 2050?
We have to if we want to continue growing. For two years now, we have had a unit focusing on CO2 reductions and an EVP in Investment and Technology responsible for initiatives that make emission reduction possible. Star Alliance also has its own targets and programs.
We must continue to do our homework and study appropriate technologies. New aircraft will be vital. We are investing in Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s and these are much more efficient aircraft than their previous generations. That makes a big difference. Less fuel burn means less emissions so investing in new fleet is vital.
Besides utilizing new generation aircraft, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) production and usage are significant elements for decreasing carbon emissions. We have also teamed up with the local universities to study SAF and decide on the best way forward.
We are also eager to reduce plastics. We looked at the items least used in our amenity kits, for example, and have taken them out. It shows the level of commitment that airlines must have to preserve the environment. It’s only right. We have to be conscious of the world we are leaving for our grandchildren.
What technologies excite you?
Digitization is the future. We have a thriving information technology in our country, and we will look to exploit that. In particular, customers should be able to buy a ticket at any time through any channel. Anybody in the world can buy a household item that is made in China with just one click. Why shouldn’t they be able to buy a ticket on our airline in the same way? Aviation is behind the curve in retailing, and it has to catch up fast.
We have invested in a technology company and are excited about the potential. It will explore technologies that are suitable for our airline initially, but the plan further down the line is to expand its operations into general consumer technology.
Are there any other areas of the industry that demand our attention?
I think we can do more from a humanitarian point of view. Aviation says it delivers social and economic benefits—and it does—but we must make sure that we reach everybody. There are a lot of unfortunate people in the world. We are working with non-governmental organizations to deliver food, medical supplies, and other essentials.
Aviation was vital during the crisis and has been instrumental to humanitarian efforts at other times. But we can and should be doing more every day. I feel passionate about this. We say we are a global industry and connect the world. So, let’s have global awareness and reach every single person. We can’t ignore those parts of the world where we don’t fly. Aviation cannot just be about connecting those who can afford it. Let’s truly deliver on our message of connectivity and being a force for good.
What more do you want to achieve at the airline?
I have been at Turkish Airlines for 17 years and I have a professional, motivated, senior team, most of whom are also long-serving. Together with all the staff, we have built one of the biggest and best airlines in the world. And in the future, we are only going to get better.
We have put ourselves in a situation where we have managed to invest in many different subsidiaries. The challenge is to make those subsidiaries as good and as successful as the parent airline.
At the moment, about 15% of our profit is generated by our subsidiaries. I want to reach 50%.
That doesn’t mean we will forget our core business though. Carrying passengers and cargo around the world is what we do, and we will never forget that. That will always be the focus of our strategy.