Why Turkey’s main airline now flies into Somalia daily

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The visit to Mogadishu by Turkey’s President, Recep Erdogan in January heralded welcome news for Somalia’s battered but resilient aviation industry.

After landing in the capital to inaugurate the newly-constructed terminal at Aden Adde International Airport, President Erdogan announced that Turkish Airlines would expand its Istanbul-Djibouti-Mogadishu service from four flights a week to daily. That crucial route serves as a lifeline for members of the diaspora, enabling connecting flights to their adoptive countries in Europe and North America.

But while Turkey’s engagement with Somalia has to date focussed on humanitarian assistance (Erdogan’s first visited Mogadishu in August 2011 at the height of the East Africa drought), the decision to increase flight frequencies was in no way a charitable gesture.

To the contrary, passenger demand on the route has grown steadily since March 2012, when the airline entered the route as a twice-weekly service incorporating a stopover in Khartoum. According to Kayhan Bilgili, Turkish

Airlines’ country manager for Somalia, 78 per cent of the seats are occupied year-round, well above the industry average of 68 per cent for airlines based in Africa. “Demand is rising day by day. For a long time, there was no international connection between the world and Somalia, but now there is with Turkish Airlines,” he says. “We are operating with an Airbus 320 with 150 passenger capacity, and we have cargo service also. At the cargo reservation desk there is always a queue.”

Bilgili insists that there are no plans to make the route non-stop, noting that about half of the passengers who board the flight in Istanbul disembark in Djibouti. The short stop-over also allows Turkish Airlines to rotate its flight crews and redouble security procedures before entering Somalia’s airspace, which is still controlled by the United Nations owing to perceived shortcomings in domestic oversight capabilities.

Nonetheless, the introduction and expansion of the arterial air link has already transformed Somalia’s standing on the international stage, boosting its security credentials and normalising travel to the country.

“When you see Turkish Airlines going to Somalia, it becomes the same as going to New York, London, Dubai,” explains Said Korshel, Somalia’s former Transport Minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Abdiweli Ahmed. “It gives Somalia a safe reputation, which is really important. We are so grateful to Turkish Airlines for this. Otherwise, nobody would come here.

They took the risk, and they showed that it was safe.” Data from Flight Maps Analytics illustrate the commercial significance of the Istanbul link. Although flights to Nairobi depart more frequently from Mogadishu—at least twice daily across all airlines—Istanbul accounts for nearly one third of capacity at the airport as measured by Available Seat Kilometres.

That reflects the lengthier distance of the journey: 4,600km, compared with 1,000km to Nairobi and 2,800km to Sharjah, the second furthest point in Mogadishu’s network.

Istanbul’s status as the only mediumhaul air link from Somalia also creates opportunities for cargo haulage. In the past, Turkish Airlines had to deploy dedicated freighter aircraft to Mogadishu when transporting humanitarian aid, much of it bound for the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) and the Turkish Red Crescent.

But those ad hoc flights have now largely been replaced by belly capacity on passenger services. The A320 has space for seven cargo containers, and according to Bilgili about 70 per cent of the freight transported on the route is shipped by commercial customers.

While the airline still plays an active role in moving humanitarian aid, demand from private-sector forwarders is rising in step with passenger demand. This heightened commercial activity provides knockon benefits to the Somali economy. According to the World Bank, air transport directly and indirectly creates 6.9 million jobs and $80.5 billion in GDP (gross domestic product) for African economies.

By offering air connectivity to the diaspora and the business community, Turkish Airlines is ensuring that Somalia gets its fair slice of the pie. “We are the only major airline serving Mogadishu,” notes Temel Kotil, the chief executive of Turkish Airlines. “Everything is under control, [we have had] no problems, thanks to God. We are making good profit, and we see with our own eyes how Somalia is developing; how it is growing.”

“Everything is under
control, [we have had]
no problems, thanks to
God. We are making
good profit, and we see
with our own eyes how
Somalia is developing;
how it is growing”
Temel Kotil, chief executive
of Turkish Airlines

With no official flag-carrier to promote national interests, given that Somali Airlines has been grounded since 1991, Turkish Airlines and its home base of Istanbul Ataturk Airport serve as a crucial bridging point for

Somalia. Though often over-shadowed by its rivals in the Persian Gulf, the airline has grown passenger numbers nearly fivefold to 55 million people over the past decade. It now deploys 263 aircraft to 264 destinations worldwide. The success of the business model and its appeal to Somali customers lies in Istanbul’s geography.

Like Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways, Turkey’s flag-carrier has adopted a so-called ‘sixth-freedom’ hub model that aims to connect all major global destinations through a single airport at the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa.

This geographical good fortune allows Turkish Airlines to serve far more points than would be commercially viable from a less central locality, such as Mogadishu. That in turn opens up easy connections for Somali passengers, who can hop onto the carrier’s high-frequency services to London, Helsinki and other hotspots for the diaspora. “Within one to two hours of landing in Istanbul] we can offer these connections, and if no connection is available, we can support customers in a hotel,” Bilgili says.

Crucially, Turkey’s aviation know how is also fostering the development of a self-sufficient Somali sector. In April 2014, former Prime Minister Ahmed and former Transport Minister Korshel laid the foundation stone for the Turkish-funded Aviation Training Academy at Aden Adde Airport. It is not yet clear when the facility will be operational. A tentative launch date of mid-2015 now seems optimistic. Upon completion, it will enable a new generation of Somalis to inherit and grow the domestic aerospace industry.

Ankara has further provided scholarships for foundational education, allowing 440 Somali students to enrol in Turkish universities and high schools in 2012. Developing Somali institutions and training Somali professionals is a long-term commitment that will take years to bear fruit, especially given the country’s severe handicap following two decades of civil war.

However, as long as progress in the political and security spheres gains traction, the growth of all sectors will gradually pay dividends to both Somalis and their foreign backers. Favori, the Turkish company that operates Aden Adde Airport, predicts a return on its $20 million terminal investment within five years. Whether or not that time frame is met, Turkey’s eventual transition from benevolent brother to commercial partner is assured.