As Istanbul’s beautiful new airport opens for business, it serves as a reminder of how state-backed airlines serve to advance the power of the regimes that fuel them.
The Financial Times shares a fascinating account of the history of Turkish Airlines. The carrier’s recent history of robust expansion all began with a promise from then-Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2012 that “every Turkish citizen will fly at least once in their life.”
And as Turkey, under Erdogan, has tried to resurrect its influence lost after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, one way it has done that is through growing Turk Hava Yollari, what we know as Turkish Airlines. Turkish Airlines serves 252 international destinations and serves more countries than any other airline.
Part of that is explained by geography:
Almost 50 countries can be reached from Istanbul on a flight that lasts three hours or less, allowing them to be served by narrow-bodied aircraft that use less fuel and require fewer passengers to fill up.
But what I found stunning was how far Turkish has come in so short a time. Take Africa, for example.
In 2003, Turkey had 12 embassies on the continent and Turkish Airlines had five destinations. By March this year, those figures were 40 and 52.
Indeed, Turkish Airlines has become “Turkey’s first and best known international brand.” Put another way, Turkish Airlines is used to exert Turkish influence around the globe. Turkish Airlines has opened the door of Africa for Turkey.
The Turkish Puppet
And over the years, as Erdogan has consolidated power, Turkish Airlines has more closely followed the lead of the national government:
Over the years, as Mr Erdogan has stood accused of growing intolerance towards his critics and became bolder in imposing his conservative values on a country founded on secular principles, the airline has also faced criticism. It stopped serving alcohol on domestic flights and ceased offering critical newspapers.
Following the July 2016 attempted coup, the carrier mimicked the state’s purges of public servants suspected of supporting the plot by dismissing staff. The airline, which declined to be interviewed for this article, did not respond to a request for comment on why it acts in line with the government.
That’s why the latest airport project is so important. By 2027 (at least that’s the plan), Istanbul’s new airport will have six runways making it “the largest airport in the world” (according to the Turkish government). Look around the new airport and you’ll see the following signs:
This is not just an airport…It is a monument to victory.
I’m not complaining about the byproduct of this government influence, which is one of my favorite airlines in the world. Good quality food and service is not just a business decision, but a political one. But it is interesting to think about what Turkish Airlines would look like today if the government backing it only had running an airline on its mind. Instead, the airline is just a sword in the toolkit of a state yearning to regain glory on the world stage.