Africa: Why Turkish Airlines is betting on wide-body aircraft on the continent

By Nelly Fualdes

Posted on Thursday, 3 November 2022 15:46, updated on Friday, 4 November 2022 13:27

Turkish Airlines, which claims to be the foreign airline with the largest number of destinations on the continent, wants to pursue the interconnection of major cities and is now considering replacing its 737s with wide-body aircraft to maximise the potential of the African sky.

Announcing its summer results in September (7.8 million monthly passengers in July and August; +14% compared to 2019), Turkish Airlines presented itself as “the largest network carrier in the world in terms of available seat capacity on international flights”.

The semantic spin allows the company, which is not the largest in terms of fleet or financial performance, to claim the number one spot. It leaves out American or Chinese giants such as American Airlines, Delta Airlines, China Southern Airlines or China Eastern Airlines, which derive some of their strength from their domestic market.

Named the seventh best airline in the world by the 2022 edition of Skytrax, behind Qatar Airways (1st) and Emirates (3rd), but ahead of Air France (8th) and Swiss (10th), Turkish Airlines is, therefore, banking on a particularly dense international offer.

“We are leaving behind the effects of the pandemic,” Bilal Ekşi, CEO of the company, told us.

The group is reporting revenues of $7.6bn in the first half of 2022, an increase of almost a third, compared to the same period (pre-Covid) of 2019. Freight revenues jumped 155.8% over the same period to $1.2bn, while passenger revenues rose 7.9% to $5.4bn.

Central position

Africa is not left out of this growth. With 62 destinations in 41 countries, Turkish boasts “the airline from outside the continent that flies to the most destinations in Africa”.

“Turkish Airlines is strong in terms of destinations, without being the leader in Africa. Far from the power of competitors like Emirates in terms of the number of frequencies or passengers, it prefers to focus on the network,” says Richard Maslen, chief analyst of the Centre for Aviation (CAPA).

He adds that Istanbul’s geographical position is ideal to play “this role of connector” whether between Africa and Europe or Africa and Asia.

The Turkish megalopolis is also a credible alternative to Doha, Dubai, Paris, or Brussels to connect African cities.

“Moreover, Turkish [Airways] is multiplying the number of stopovers on the same route, which makes sense in an African market where each link generates little traffic,” says the expert.

With 2.3 million passengers carried in the region during the first eight months of 2022, Africa accounts for 7.8% of the international passengers recorded by the Turkish company and 9% of its first-half revenues.

Cairo, Tunis, and Lagos lead the way

On the continent, “we have made progress both in terms of capacity offered and traffic,” Ekşi says. Even if demand is not growing at quite the same rate as supply, the executive announces a 10.9% increase in unit passenger revenues compared to the same period of 2019, notably due to post-crisis price increases.

Lagos, Cairo and Tunis are the top three African destinations most requested by Turkish customers.

While it has a strong presence in Nigeria, the company does not deny the difficulties specific to this market – even if Ekşi is careful not to point to it by name.

He mentioned difficulties that “some countries” may encounter in converting revenues into foreign currency and exporting them abroad. One consequence, Ekşi points out, is the “serious difference” between the official exchange rate and the street rate, “leading to difficulties in sourcing oil at the official exchange rate”.

While 11 new destinations have been added to Turkish’s African network since 2018, Ekşi’s immediate priority is not to increase frequencies or destinations – although he does not rule out the possibility – depending on market conditions.

Large aircraft on standby

In the coming years, the executive intends to replace part of the fleet serving the continent with larger aircraft. “65% to 70% of our flights to Africa are operated with single-aisle aircraft, mostly from the 737 family.

“Yet there are countries that we could serve with twin-aisle aircraft to overcome capacity problems, especially in regions where there is an excess of cargo and extra baggage for passengers,” explains Ekşi.

This a development that “makes sense”, according to Maslen, for whom cargo “can alone make a route profitable, even if half the passenger cabin remains empty”.

However, Turkish has had to postpone its ambition, due to the lack of availability of wide-body aircraft for the moment.

The company, which has just over 320 aircraft (excluding subsidiaries), is waiting for 17 additional A350-900s, as well as ten 787-9 Dreamliners.

The change will therefore be considered “as soon as the fleet allows,” says Ekşi. Nigeria, South Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Senegal and Mauritius are already served by wide-body aircraft, mostly from the A330 family, he adds.

Asked about the possibility of Turkish entering the capital of African companies, the director general of the Turkish pavilion said he would be “happy to evaluate” available opportunities.

Quick fact:

83,500 tonnes – this is the volume of cargo transported by Turkish Airlines and its subsidiary Turkish Airlines Cargo to and from the continent during the first eight months of the year, including 6,542 tonnes to or from Senegal, the second largest cargo destination, behind Lagos but ahead of Johannesburg.

Fruits and vegetables, seafood, meat products, flowers, medical supplies, live animals and even human remains transit through Istanbul.

While the cargo planes that land in Dakar leave much less loaded than when they arrived, Ekşi explains that he resorts to multi-stop flights, “in order to reduce empty miles and increase profitability as much as possible”.

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