Friday, July 30, 2010

Turkey Flying High

The Wall Street Journal's Turkey correspondent, Marc Champion, has another great article out, this time taking a look at the spectacular recent growth of Turkish Airlines (THY) and how that is both mirroring and working hand-in-hand with Turkey's rising political and economic ambitions.

Though no longer fully state-owned, THY is very much being used as a tool of state policy, with flights to strategic new destinations (mostly in economic terms) all over the world being added almost at the same time as the government makes diplomatic and trade overtures in those same places.

I was especially struck by how some of the industry concerns and criticisms of the airline's rapid growth mirrored some of the concerns being aired about Turkey's rapidly evolving foreign policy. From Champion's piece:
Meanwhile, there's some discreet grumbling among THY's Star Alliance partners about the airline's expansion and pricing strategy.

"Turkish seems to be the new Emirates—no-one wants to be in an alliance with Emirates because there is no room for a partner, the aim is to connect everything via Dubai," said an aviation official, who declined to be named. That could mean trouble for the future, the official said….

….There are concerns, too, about the speed of Turkish Airlines' growth. The crash of a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 as it approached Amsterdam airport last year, killing nine, revived memories of the airline's historically spotty safety record before it bought one of the world's newest fleets. Meanwhile, when fog blocked Ataturk Airport in November, the airport's systems crumbled. Just a few transit-desk computer terminals were available to change the flights of thousands of stranded passengers after passenger-information screens froze. At one point, passengers stormed over the transit desk and began pounding on the door of the office where frightened ground staff had retreated.
Indeed, much of the criticism being aimed at Turkish foreign policy these days -- particularly by Ankara's traditional Western allies -- is that it is less consultative and increasingly self-centered. Inside Turkey, meanwhile, there are concerns that Ankara has too many balls up in the air on the foreign policy front without sufficient resources to keep those balls from crashing to the ground. Launching initiatives and opening up embassies and consulates all over the world (just like adding flight destinations) is a great idea, but not if you don't have sufficiently trained personnel to follow through on those initiatives or meaningfully staff those postings (or properly fly the airplanes).

Those interested in charting the course of Turkish foreign policy in the coming years, then, might also want to start keeping their eye on how Turkish Airlines does and where it goes. It could tell a lot.

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