“The future is in the skies,” Turkey’s founding father Kemal Ataturk told the country’s newly formed parliament. Months later, in 1925 against the backdrop of a sweeping modernization campaign, the country’s first aviation oversight body, the Turkish Aeronautical Association was founded, followed shortly thereafter by a national carrier, of sorts.
Aviation was so central to Ataturk’s vision that the incipient national carrier was established as its own entity within the department of defense. In those first years, a well-established aviation program was regarded as critical to the national well-being.
Almost 100 years later, that patriotic ambition still inspires Turhan Özen, chief cargo officer for Turkey’s national carrier Turkish Airlines. “The year 2023 is the 100th anniversary of Turkish Republic, and we envision Turkish Cargo within the top five global air cargo providers,” Özen said. “It is a challenging position, but I find it very exciting, as well as motivating.”
What Özen hopes to achieve is almost unprecedented, and for most carriers, unachievable. But, a combination of political, economic and geographical factors suggest that Turkish Cargo could pull off one of the most ambitious expansions in the airfreight business – and it’s already outpacing the competition, rising six places to No. 22 in this year’s “Freight 50” list of top cargo carriers. In short, Turkish Cargo, is betting that it can outpace the competition and track long-term growth in a notoriously cyclical market by offering shippers a better deal, better routes and better service.
Change is in the air
One hundred years ago, airfreight was an afterthought, useful for mail and military logistics but largely separate from economic activity. However, recent developments at Turkish Airways underscore just how much the paradigm has changed since Ataturk weighed in on the matter. While Turkish Airlines has spent the last few decades growing into one of the largest passenger operations in the world, its cargo potential remains underutilized, and now, the carrier has set about changing that.
“This is the first time that the cargo business has a C-level executive,” Özen said. And while many other legacy carriers have spent the last decade divesting of their freighters, Özen is going all in. Turkish Airlines recently amendeded an order with Boeing, requesting two 777 freighters instead of passenger 777s. Özen added that, with a bigger freighter fleet, Turkish Cargo could better optimize its network. He explained that, “the two new 777F’s, which will join our fleet by the end of this year, will increase our cargo coverage, especially on the long hauls.”
While Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has forged an ideological path that diverges from the secular principles of the country’s founder, the two leaders’ ideologies re-converge around the centrality of aviation. Erdogan promoted the Istanbul New Airport despite widespread resistance from environmental and political opposition, making the megaproject central to Turkish identity. “Our [Turkey’s] biggest difference is that we can handle problems which normally could bring any other country to its knees and projects which could make every country prosperous at the same time,” he said.
With unflinching government backing, the project is moving forward quickly.