Small capacity with regular frequency key for Turkish Airlines strategy to Africa, and perhaps India


In an interview with CAPA, Turkish Airlines CEO Temel Kotil expanded on the airline's strategic decision to deploy a specially configured sub-fleet of B737-900ERs on many African routes, primarily in the central and western region of the continent. The strategy could be expanded to Central Asia and India, Mr Kotil says.

He said that while Africa is a very good market for carriers - including Turkish - the seat demand is small and carriers have responded by offering limited frequencies on large aircraft able to span the distances involved. While non-stop long-haul passenger comfort is maintained, sporadic flights have meant that travellers have had to tailor trips to the airline's schedules rather than to their actual needs.

  • Turkish Airlines plans to deploy a sub-fleet of specially configured B737-900ERs on African routes, primarily in central and western regions, to increase service and tailor trips to passengers' needs.
  • The B737-900ER sub-fleet will have reduced capacity but increased passenger appeal, with only 151 seats compared to the standard 180 in a two-class configuration.
  • The smaller aircraft on longer sectors will have unit costs equal to widebody operations, making increased frequencies financially viable.
  • The initial order is for 10 aircraft, primarily dedicated to African routes, but the sub-fleet could potentially be expanded to Central Asia and India.
  • Turkish Airlines aims to challenge Gulf carriers by providing frequent flights to multiple destinations at a sustainable unit cost.
  • The deployment of the B737-900ER sub-fleet allows Turkish Airlines to have high frequency on routes that couldn't sustain the same frequency with widebody aircraft, enabling network expansion without significant losses.

Turkey is closer, making smaller aircraft possible

The Turkish solution is to dedicate a separate fleet of narrowbody aircraft, in their case the B737-900ER, with reduced capacity but increased passenger appeal resulting in an ability to increase service while still keeping unit costs low.

The B737-900ER sub-fleet has only 151 seats in an aircraft touted by Boeing as accommodating 180 in a two-class configuration. Business class utilises the new Comfort Class seats found on all the carrier's narrowbodies but pitch will be 58 inches as opposed to the 40-45 inches found on similar aircraft used in the European market.

The aircraft will also have Boeing's new Sky interior, creating a roomier cabin atmosphere. The aircraft will also have two additional fuel tanks (standard on the -900ER) that will allow operation on flight segments of five to seven hours. Mr Kotil says that even with fewer seats, the smaller aircraft on longer sectors have unit costs equal to those seen with widebody operations, making increased frequencies financially viable.

Potential range of Turkish B737-900ER sub-fleet

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Only part of the mix

Turkish will continue to use a mix of aircraft on African routes, with widebody aircraft even deployed on some relatively short routes to North Africa where demand is high. South Africa will also continue to utilise widebody aircraft.

But the bulk of Central Africa will be the prime market in which the new configuration operates. Lagos will come first, followed by Nairobi where double-daily operations are envisioned.

Looking at the Central and Eastern African operations of European airlines, many routes see limited frequency with the smallest aircraft that has the range to perform the mission, giving credence to Turkish's plan to boost all-important frequency and decrease daily seats.

Selected Europe-Central/Eastern Africa Routes (14-Nov-2011 to 20-Nov-2011)

Airline Route Weekly Frequency Equipment Weekly Seats
Air France Paris-Bamako 5 A340 1375
Paris-Bangui 1 A340 275
Paris-Niamey 4 A330 832
British Airways London-Dar Es Salaam 3 B767 627
London-Entebbe 5 B767 1045
London-Nairobi 7 B777 1715
Brussels Airlines Brussels-Accra 2 A330 448
Brussels-Kigali 4 A330 975
Brussels-Yaounde Nsimalen 2 A330 606
KLM Amsterdam-Abuja 3 A330 744
Amsterdam-Entebbe/Kigali 5 A330 1240
Amsterdam-Kano 3 A330 744
Amsterdam-Khartoum 3 A330 744

Sub-fleet could be expanded to Central Asia and India

The initial order is for 10 aircraft and though they will be primarily dedicated to African routes, Mr Kotil sees them as ideally suited for any long, thin route with a duration of five to seven hours - semi long-haul as he terms it. That would encompass much of Central Asia and India, allowing the airline to challenge the Gulf carriers by providing frequent flights to multiple destinations at a sustainable unit cost.

When asked if there was the possibility of additional aircraft being ordered if the plan is successful, he responded, "That is the idea." It is an intriguing solution to a frequency problem that has plagued much of the African market for decades. With longer distances involved, this is a solution not available at the traditional European hubs. And given the huge European network that Turkish operates, a double-daily service to Nairobi could connect most European cities with a single stop. He noted that Turkey's geographic position means far more direct routings and shorter elapsed travel times.

Turkish's sub-fleet is new, and with potential to spread

While network carriers like Etihad Airways have turned to operating single-class narrowbody aircraft, the deployment of such aircraft has primarily been on routes with little or no premium traffic. Turkish, however, will offer two classes of services, but more importantly, the sub-fleet is being created not to match classes of service to demand. The primary driving factor is to let the airline have high frequency on routes that could not sustain that same frequency with widebody aircraft.

Much discussion on thin routes as concentrated on long and thin routes aircraft like the B787 and A350 can overcome. The B737-900ER has had limited success outside of deals from Lion Air and Delta. Airbus does not have a direct competitor: its A321 has the capacity but not range of the B737-900ER while the A318 has the range but not capacity. As Turkish's network and local markets grow, the B737-900ER routes could eventually be upgraded to widebody aircraft, permitting the B737-900ER subfleet to enter new emerging markets.

Turkish will be able to expand its network without having the marketing clout of the largest network carrier, Emirates, or face the possibility of losses if deploying high-capacity aircraft into young markets. This strategy could easily be adopted by other emerging network carriers.

Lower fares as well?

While not touched on in the discussion, it is also possible that competitive unit costs, coupled with higher frequencies, might actually begin to moderate Africa's traditionally high fares. But that is a subject for a later interview.

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