CEO Keynote: Putting its Reputation Before Numbers was Key to Turkish Airlines’ Bounce-back Post-COVID-19


During his keynote interview at the APEX/IFSA EXPO 2021 Thought Leadership Conference, Turkish Airlines’ chairman and CEO Ilker Aycı charted the carrier’s journey through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Impressively, Turkish Airlines did not make any layoffs, nor take any form of government bailout during the pandemic. Aycı claimed, “It’s a philosophy – the most important asset of an airline is the crew, is it’s dedicated staff. Our slogan is that together we’re stronger. Together we’re a family.”

Despite this, and the fact that between January and March this year its passenger numbers were down 48% year-over-year, Turkish Airlines returned to profit during the first quarter of 2021. 

It helps that the carrier kept flying throughout the worst of COVID-19. “If regulations allowed, it didn’t matter how many passengers there were, we would fly,” Aycı said. This brought new passengers to the airline, and even with minimal passengers onboard, he said that the crew took the passenger service very seriously, which gave new customers a good first experience with the brand. 

These decisions, enabled with support from the crew (who agreed to pay cuts, which have now been all but eliminated) and from its partners and stakeholders, is what Aycı believes rebuilt passengers’ trust and confidence in flying with Turkish Airlines. “We knew that travel would come back, and so more important than facts and figures was maintaining our reputation.”

Although Aycı admitted to a few initial hiccups in terms of passenger refunds, he said the carrier managed to pay out billions fairly smoothly, thanks to recent investments in technology and IT, which also helped to deliver touchless experiences across the passenger journey.  “Flexibility was key, we didn’t punish passengers for changing their flights.”

Looking forward, Aycı said that Turkish Airlines was already working on changing its seats again. In business class, he said that while privacy is an important factor, his airline’s offering would not put privacy ahead of seat space, which is often compromised as a result. He also said the carrier would focus more on its premium economy offering, which is a segment that he believes will grow. 

When asked by BBC News presenter Aaron Heslehurst whether Turkish Airlines was hoping to take on the big Middle Eastern carriers in the near future, Aycı answered thoughtfully. “Pre-pandemic, the competition was cut-throat, but now we need to be more collaborative. We need cooperation based on a win-win for both airlines, not just one side.” He referenced the APEX/IFSA Board of Governors vote to share information on unruly passengers as a good example of this.  

He concluded that collaboration is also good for sustainability, the whole definition of which he characterized as “doing more with less,” and suggested that in future airlines should be more concerned with “optimizing their resources.”