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Turkish Airlines’ Expansion in Africa

Since 2003, Turkey has been deploying great efforts, through the presence of embassies and private sector investors, to create a comprehensive network of air connections to new African destinations. Quite a challenge for Turkey, but also for Africa.

With the objective of becoming one of the top ten airlines in the world, Turkish Airlines is targeting a turnover of 24 billion dollars by 2023. The carrier succeeded in implementing a strict development strategy with respect to Africa. The company offers a vast network and delivers high-quality service. Two elements making it a serious adversary for other airline companies. ‘This competition goes beyond the Africa-Turkey axis since the Turkish carrier’s strategy relies on using Istanbul as a hub. This way, it competes with European carriers in Africa by offering an alternate itinerary to Europe via Istanbul, which is, of course, longer. However, Turkish Airlines seem to be able to offer globally lower prices than its rivals thanks to a strategic operation of flights that maintains costs to their lowest: the company favours the use of medium-haul aircraft on most of its connections to Africa (Boeing 737 or Airbus 320); new destinations are often opened by addition to an existing journey (for example, Maputo as a continuation of Johannesburg); and finally, frequencies are generally limited to three flights per week at the beginning but can later increase if demand justifies it’, explains Julien Lebel, doctoral student at Institut français de géopolitique (IGF) of Paris 8 University Saint-Denis.


His research focuses on competition and strategies of airline companies and their correlations with political and economic players. Turkish Airlines have opened several new stopovers in the past few years. Yet the Turkish airline was operating no regular connection to Africa up until the beginning of the 2000s. ‘To this day, Turkish Airlines cover more than 30 destinations in this region. However, we must keep in mind that this expansion is part of a global growth strategy and that the carrier also increased its presence dramatically in Asia and in Europe over the past decade. In that sense. Turkish Airlines are building a real hub in Istanbul, hoping to bring a growing number of passengers to transit through this city, on their way to various destinations,’ adds Julien Lebel.


Shareholders Mainly From the Private Sector


When Turkey achieved non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council in 2008, it was because of the support of about 50 African countries. This certainly convinced Ankara to continue its development efforts to become a world power. ‘The multi-directional foreign policy implemented in Turkey by the AKP government after it was elected in 2003 – under the leadership of Ahmet Davutoglu who later became Prime Minister – really paved the way to the expansion of Turkish presence on the African continent. However, already in 1998, the Turkish government had an “Action Plan for Africa” proving its ambition to open embassies, promote diplomatic contacts and encourage commercial exchanges. But those projects were delayed, among other reasons because of the economic crisis in Turkey, in 2000–2001. AKP is composed mostly of business leaders of small and medium international export enterprises – a.k.a Anatolian Tigers – and the party is simply applying to its governing style those same entrepreneurial ambitions. Recep T. Erdogan – then Prime Minister – declared 2005 “year of Africa” for Turkey, which translated into diplomatic meetings but also information sessions catered for Turkish businessmen looking for new outlets for their exports’, says Julien Lebel. The result of this was an easier access for entrepreneurs and official delegations to new markets. Also, the ties between the economic and political sectors are strong in Turkey.


The Negative Impact of Geopolitical Tensions


Turkish Airlines cover today no fewer than 40 destinations in Africa. ‘The vast majority is, however, not served on a daily basis. Among the stops announced, Juba should be integrated in the Turkish carrier’s network in the coming days. Conakry and Luanda were unveiled in 2014, yet are still not offered to this day. But after the visit of Erdogan in Guinea at the beginning of March, it appears the opening of Conakry is back on the agenda. As far as Luanda is concerned, Angola scarcely grants traffic rights to foreign transporters, something that may constitute an obstacle to the arrival of Turkish Airlines, if negotiations are still ongoing between Turkish and Angolan authorities.’ It is although worth noting that geopolitical tensions are not without effect on the strategy of Turkish Airlines. ‘The company had for example announced, in December 2014, the opening of two new routes in Egypt scheduled for the year 2015. The project never materialized as relations between the Turkish and Egyptian governments grew more tensed after the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, considered an ally by Erdogan. The same in Lybia, when the Turkish company stopped overnight its flights to Tripoli, Benghazi and Sebha, following Erdogan’s stance in favour of the Islamist government in Tripoli. This generated a sentiment of rejection and weakened Turkish presence in Lybia, a country where internal tensions are acute,’ says Lebel.


Sizeable Opportunities for Africa


For every new destination covered by Turkish Airlines, very often a new Turkish embassy opens. In the airline footsteps, says Julien Lebel, follow ‘official delegations accompanied by economic players, association representatives from the business community, including from MÜSIAD, regrouping an important proportion of Anatolian entrepreneurs ideologically close to AKP. And all of this comes with a benevolent discourse from Turkish authorities, like when Erdogan outlines in his speeches the absence of a Turkish colonial past in Sub-Saharan Africa. Also the Turkish presence in Somalia is a powerful symbol. Turkish Airlines is even the only international company landing in Mogadiscio. African governments seem to perceive this approach of Turkish authorities as an opportunity to open up their territory and attract foreign investments in order to develop the local economy. I don’t know if the relationship is truly reciprocal in the end and maybe is it somehow too early to say. But one thing for sure, Turkish exports to the African continent have reached 14 million dollars in 2014, which represents a growth of 52% compared to the year 2008 and makes the region one of the most dynamic for Turkish entrepreneurs.’ And those entrepreneurs, thanks to the expansion of Turkish Airlines in Africa, continue to flock to the continent.

By Darine Habchi

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