Airlines can try to reverse a poor reputation by spending a fortune on new liveries, glossy advertising and new aircraft and then, rather too quickly, a chance remark reminds the world that not so much has changed.
Turkish Airlines had a shocking reputation for safety and service and, to its credit, it has improved though not as much as it needs to. They are definitely not an airline that should be handing out advice to Lufthansa on how to train pilots.
The CEO of the airline, Temel Kotil, apparently has the Germanwings crash all sorted out. “The crash happened after the pilot broke up with his girlfriend” he said in an interview with a Turkish magazine, which is why Turkish Airlines “encourages” its pilots to marry. He also said that his airline was anxious to recruit more female pilots for the same reason.
He is clearly a man of many talents. Not only the CEO of an airline but a world-class psychiatrist as well. Those who have studied the issue of depression will no doubt be fascinated to hear Mr Kotil’s thesis that depression affects single men so much more more than married men or women.
Suggesting that pilots should be “encouraged” to marry has a slightly ominous tinge to it in the context of a country that is veering towards a form of Islamic dictatorship.
There has long been an understanding that airlines never comment publicly on the accidents of other companies. The CEO of Turkish Airlines needs to be forcibly reminded of this.
Meanwhile, these silly remarks are unlikely to make passengers travelling with Turkish Airlines feel any safer.
Turkish Airlines appears to be playing a dangerous game. English language Turkish media reports that the airline announced last month that it won’t sell tickets to a politician who resigned from the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in protest at a massive corruption probe that led to the resignation of four ministers last December. The airline’s chairman Hamdi Topçu had argued on TV that the politician in question gave the crew hard time when a certain (opposition) newspaper he asked for was not provided – it has been reported that the airline has, for the past few months, placed an embargo on several newspapers critical of the government of strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
There has also been speculation that airline has not been allowing the tickets to be purchased with credit cards from Bank Asya, which is affiliated with the opposition and which the government has allegedly tried to force into bankruptcy.
An airline with the global ambition of Turkish Airlines plays these political games at its peril. The Turkish Government’s recent attempt to ban Twitter and Youtube tells us all we need to know about its approach to civil society. Ironically, the airline that makes the most use of YouTube worldwide for its creative campaigns (principally built around its expensive football sponsorship deals) is, of course, Turkish Airlines.
The company is desperate to promote itself as a modern international carrier but cannot escape the fact that it is based in a country that is sliding back to the mid twentieth century. If it’s not careful it may soon have scheduled services disrupted with planes requisiitioned at short notice by Turkey’s political elite – unflattereringly reminiscent of Air Zimbabwe.
TK1933 is the name Turkish Airlines has given to its new in-house fragrance which was released last week. The fragrance will be used in aircraft cabins, ticket offices and airport lounges to help develop a “sensuary recognition” for the airline. This is all part of the process of making Turkish Airlines a major international brand and putting the bad old days (shocking service and an even worse safety record) behind it.
Unfortunately, that process keeps hitting bumps in the road. In the last few months, the airline revealed a new outfit for its female cabin staff which had to be hastily withdrawn because it was too obviously Islamic in design. Then they said they would ban the use of red lipstick and backtracked on that as well. There is also a move to make it illegal to strike at the airline which would make it much easier to sack any staff member. The Chief Executive has either taken compassionate leave or been suspended (depending on who you believe) just to add to the confusion.
The airline really cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be a forward-thinking western company or an airline looking back at its own world of conservatism and cronyism.
As the riots at the weekend have shown, this is just a sign of an on-going battle in the whole of Turkish society. The autocratic government want to build a mosque where people traditionally celebrate New Year (and thus making the celebration illegal), they have stopped issuing new alcohol licenses and refer to anyone who drinks as “alcoholics” and want to further restrict the right of free speech.
Turkish Airlines was part of the way on the road to becoming a respectable international airline but the next few months will be crucial for the airline and the whole country. Without some liberalisation from the government, they might as well scrap TK1933 and go back to being what they were in the 1990′s.
Lufthansa has admitted to having general talks with Turkish Airlines about co-operation but the Turkish Prime Minister appears to have let the cat out of the bag by suggesting this could lead to the creation of a joint-company.
We could be wrong but this does not sound likely. It looks rather that the Turks are putting pressure on Germany to come up with some sort of deal.
It is one thing for shareholders in British Airways and Iberia to be persuaded to give up their individual holdings and take shares in a holding company instead but to expect shareholders in a tightly-regulated European company to swap their shares for a new company with extensive exposure in a country outside Europe, which does not have the highest reputation for shareholder disclosure, is surely a step too far.
However, there are many things that can be done without a full financial union. Lufthansa already has a joint shareholding with Turkish Airlines in a Turkish charter airline and Turkish Airlines is a big customer of Lufthansa Technik so the two companies are used to working together.
Turkish Airlines would gain much-needed prestige from any fuller co-operation with Lufthansa whereas Lufthansa would gain a partner that is a match for the Gulf airlines that it sees as such a threat to its longhaul market. Just looking at route maps, a deal could make sense.
The big danger in this is for Lufthansa. They might be a bit stodgy but they have a fine reputation for safety. Turkish Airlines have been spending a lot of money on polishing their image and their safety record has improved from the dismal situation some years ago but there are still too many stories of sloppy behaviour at all levels of the company which would not be tolerated in a true top class airline.
A number of co-operation agreements have been made between airlines recently and Lufthansa might feel itself under pressure to react. Maybe they do need a partner but we must hope Lufthansa does not allow itself to be pressurised into something it could well live to regret.
You will probably have read the story about a Qantas 767 being turned back as it was taxiing because of suspicions the Captain had been drinking. According to reports, the cabin crew were concered about the Captain’s behaviour, called the Operations Manager, the aircraft was ordered back to the stand and the Captain stood down from the flight.
Whilst one must wonder why the First Officer did not do anything, it was good that the cabin crew were able to raise the alarm. They called the airline’s Operation Centre in the full knowledge that, unless the call was entirely malicious, they would not face any disciplinary issue over delaying the flight. Qantas has a very strong safety culture which, like any well-run airline, encourages staff to voice any concerns they have about the operation. It also has strong unions.
In June, Turkish Airlines sent text messages sacking 345 staff (including pilots, cabin crew and engineers) for stopping work in protest against a law to make strikes at the airline illegal.
Turkish Airlines has been condemned around the world for its action and the International Transport Workers’ Federation has arranged protests in a number of capitals and is still trying to negotiate with the airline and the Turkish government.
No one likes airline strikes. Some unions, including those at Qantas, have shown a marked reluctance to move with the times but it is surely safer to fly with an airline where employees feel confident they will be protected when they have concerns about safety than with an airline that wants to ban strikes and will summarily dismiss anyone who attempts to protest.
Turkish Airlines has fought hard over the last few years to build a reputation as a modern, secure, international airline but there are some rather worrying gaps appearing in the carefully created PR image that no amount of sponsorship of glamorous football clubs will hide. The most recent blow is totally self-inflicted and suggests the airline has little idea or concern about how it is viewed by the rest of the world.
The Turkish parliament is debating a law to ban aviation workers from striking. This is just one of many signs of the government’s swing to totalitarianism.
The Turkish Civil Aviation Union reacted by urging members to go sick – the only method of protest available. Turkish Airlines instantly dismissed 150 staff (according to rumours, mostly engineers, cabin staff and at least one Captain).
Turkish Airlines has had one of the worst safety records of any airline in the world. That has improved but, as the accident in Amsterdam showed, they still have problems to overcome. No one likes strikes but the right to strike is a fundamental liberty in any civilised society. If airline employees are fearful of speaking out against their employer or government, safety will be the first casualty.
This is an ideal question for a trivia quiz because we doubt many will get the right answer. The only problem is that we are a little dubious because the claim depends on how you define Europe. Anyway, according to figures for last December, the largest “European” flag-carriers are Air France-KLM, Lufthansa, British Airways and – guess who – Turkish Airlines.
Whatever the niceties of the definition, there is no question that the airline has made astonishing progress in the last decade. It has doubled in size in just five years. They currently have 150 aircraft and plan to have 200 by 2014. They now have quite a decent reputation for cabin service on European flights and, as their intercontinental flights increase, they are working on bringing the standard there to “at least” the level of the existing major airlines. They have copied the plan of Emirates and much of their custom is from European passengers connecting in Istanbul. Their position between Western Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa gives them a huge geographical advantage. Politically, they can also claim to be “neutral” or “friendly” in certain countries where western airlines are looked on with some suspicion.
They have also shown considerable marketing skill. Sponsoring Manchester United and Barcelona does not come cheap but it you are going to get into sports sponsorship, you should aim for the best. They have also some shrewd sponsorship deals in tennis and basketball. Their advertising has developed a reputation for being quirky and amusing – the Kevin Costner “celebrity” ad became a YouTube hit (and was even featured on this blog!).
So, everything is going swimmingly for Turkish Airlines but just one thing holds them back…
They used to have a shocking safety record. This has greatly improved but there are still far too many blips (not all of which get any form of press coverage). Cabin crew have been trained to smile, airport staff persuaded to be a little less grumpy and aircraft interiors refreshed but it seems that the airline’s management has yet to persuade all their pilots to fly by the book. Without stricter controls on the pilots and an unforgiving attitude to errors, Turkish Airlines can grow as big as it wants but is not likely to enjoy the status it thinks it merits.
A Turkish Airlines Captain has resigned following a botched landing at Brussels a few days ago when he scraped both engines on the runway. No one was hurt.
It is unfortunate that the pilot decided to resign immediately. Even pretty obvious examples of pilot error are rarely as simple as they might appear. To put it bluntly, well-run airlines have far fewer examples of pilot error than badly-run airlines.
Turkish Airlines appears to have had a string of relatively minor incidents (“minor” in that there were no injuries) which suggest that the airline’s accident-prone past is not yet buried.
The airline has revamped its logo, cabin standards and general passenger service – maybe now is a good time to have a thorough overhaul of pilot training and supervision.
The report published last week on a near-miss over London in 2009 has caused some concern amongst the pilot community. A misunderstanding between a business jet and a controller at London City Airport led to the small jet being set on a collision course with a passenger jet. BALPA has pointed out that the business jet was not fitted with the latest type of collision avoidance systems which are mandatory on passenger jets. The union is – quite sensibly – calling for business jets to have the same systems as passenger aircraft since they fly in the same air space.
All very wise – but the most sophisticated type of system is of no use if pilots ignore it. In this instance, the pilots of the passenger jet ignored three separate warnings and it was a pilot in the jump-seat (behind the operating pilots) who spotted the business jet and made sure his colleagues took the necessary action.
Somehow, it is not a surprise that this was a Turkish Airlines aircraft.
The airline has made huge efforts to improve its dreadful safety record and is trying hard to establish itself as one of the world’s leading and most progressive carriers. Yet, as this incident shows, they still have serious problems with some of their flight crew. Safe flying is all about following the routine and being disciplined. At least some of Turkish Airlines’ pilots appear to have some difficulty with this concept.
If Turkish Airlines want to be taken seriously as a major airline, they not only have to improve pilot training and monitoring, but show the world they have done so.