By Martin Rivers

Turkish Airlines became the first major international carrier to serve Mogadishu for more than two decades in 2012, underscoring Ankara’s deep-rooted political and humanitarian support for the Horn of Africa nation.

Turkish Airlines resumed flying to Mogadishu in May after a three-month hiatus caused by the bombing of Daallo Airlines Flight 159 – an attack that, according to officials, was likely aimed at Turkey’s flag-carrier.

The on-board explosion on February 2 killed only the suspected suicide bomber because Flight 159 had not reached cruising altitude and therefore did not have a fully pressurised cabin. Although Somali-owned Daallo was targeted in the attack, the assailant had purchased a Turkish Airlines ticket and only switched planes due to a flight cancellation.

Speaking to The Somalia Investor Magazine at a meeting of airline executives in Dublin in June, Temel Kotil, chief executive of Turkish Airlines declined to comment on the circumstances of the bombing but promised to redouble his flag-carrier’s commitment to Mogadishu.

“We stay daily [frequencies] this summer, and then next summer we go double daily,” he revealed. “We resumed the route and everything is good so far, Inshallah, no problems … We pray for the Somali people and hopefully nothing will happen.”

Turkish Airlines became the first major international carrier to serve Mogadishu for more than two decades in 2012, underscoring Ankara’s deep-rooted political and humanitarian support for the Horn of Africa nation. It currently operates the route from Istanbul with a stopover in Djibouti. Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport is also managed by a Turkish company, Favori, while TIKA (the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency) is funding various transport-infrastructure projects across the country.

Within days of the flag-carrier touching down again in Somalia, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan made his third official visit to Mogadishu to open the new Turkish embassy – Ankara’s largest consular facility in Africa.

The decision by Turkish Airlines to make Mogadishu a twice-daily service is not purely political. Demand on the route has risen steadily over the past four years as Somali nationals, members of the diaspora and foreign contractors accelerated reconstruction work in the country. Capturing traffic to emerging economies like Somalia is now a major driver of the flag-carrier’s business model, with Kotil describing Africa as the “future of Turkish Airlines”.

“We stay daily [frequencies] this summer and then next summer we go double daily. We resumed the route and everything is good so far”. Temel Kotil, chief executive of Turkish Airlines

“What we are doing the last ten-plus years [is] we are putting a massive network together,” he explained.

“The purpose is actually if anything goes bad, [then we can] rely on the rest of the network. Right now Africa is booming, but the Chinese and Japanese and Koreans are not travelling that much anymore … So we substitute [Asian traffic] with the Middle East, we substitute with Africa.”

Turkish Airlines now serves 40 destinations on the continent, having recently launched flights to Maputo in Mozambique, Durban in South Africa, Antananarivo in Madagascar and Port Louis in Mauritius. Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and Khartoum in Sudan have also been earmarked for frequency hikes.

The flag-carrier’s intercontinental hub model – which uses Istanbul as a stopover for connecting flights between other regions – has helped to offset a fall in tourism to Turkey. Visitor numbers fell by 28% in April – the steepest year-on-year decline for nearly two decades. Security concerns were largely to blame for the exodus, with Syria’s five-year civil war increasingly spilling across the border into its northern neighbour. Suicide bombings in Turkey have killed dozens this year, including German and Israeli tourists.

Although the downturn contributed to a $421 million net loss in the first quarter, Kotil predicted a strong recovery during the summer season. The airline is still targeting an 18% rise in capacity this year, he confirmed, adding: “For us, growth is a must. If I don’t have new frequencies … the rest of the destinations we are serving become hungry.”

The hub-and-spoke strategy has proven so effective that Turkish Airlines decided to lease an additional three Boeing 777-300ERs from Kenya Airways this year.

Like Turkey, Kenya is also suffering from a security-related downturn as Somalia-based Al Shabaab steps up cross-border attacks on the country. Unlike Turkish Airlines, however, Kenya’s flag-carrier has little scope to shift capacity away from traditional point-to-point traffic. The airline posted its worst-ever financial results last year, prompting management to sharply cut back operations.

East Africa’s largest and most profitable carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, is meanwhile looking to complement its own successful operation with a Turkish Airlines tie-up. “We are really open for the joint ventures with so many airlines, and hopefully we get to them,” Kotil confirmed, singling out Ethiopian and LOT Polish Airlines as prime targets. “We are talking with some [airlines], but Ethiopian already publicised it. We need these route-based joint ventures … [They can cover the] trunk routes [between two countries] and the rest of the network by feeding each other.”

Given the paucity of nonstop flights from Somalia, strong hub-and-spoke networks in Addis Ababa and Istanbul create attractive connecting options for the country. Along with the Turkish-operated Istanbul-Djibouti-Mogadishu route, Ethiopian runs a twice-daily service from Hargeisa to its home base.

Asked about Turkish Airlines’ route-development priorities over the coming years, Kotil said the flag-carrier is now shifting its focus to higher frequencies on existing points such as Mogadishu. “In terms of routes the company is really developed,” he said. “Don’t expect us every year [to launch] 20 more routes.”

The steady growth of African economies should also lead to a gradual up-gauging of aircraft. Almost all of Turkish Airlines’ flights to the continent are currently served with narrow body planes that seat fewer than 200 passengers.

The attack on Flight 159 in February was an uncomfortable reminder that Somalia remains very much a warzone. Any passengers flying into the country put their lives in the hands of the African Union Mission In Somalia and the Somali government, both of which share responsibility for securing Aden Adde Airport and other gateways. No-one can guarantee that similar attacks will not be attempted in the future.

However, by restoring and even bolstering its Mogadishu route Turkey is sending a defiant message about its unwavering commitment to Somalia. That is good news for everyone involved in the country’s reconstruction.

The writer is Commercial Air Transport writer based in Edinburgh