TBY talks to Hacı Say, Deputy Managing Director of SunExpress, on the development of routes, SunExpress Germany, and his expectations for the tourism sector.
TBY What are the most significant routes for SunExpress today, and do you expect to increase these routes?
HACI SAY We started flying from Antalya to Frankfurt in 1990 after our establishment. For 21 years we have been flying routes to Frankfurt, and not just from Antalya. In the meantime, we started operations in 2006 from Izmir and in 2008 from Sabiha Gökçen airport in Istanbul. We are the first airline to run both international and domestic schedules and flights from Izmir. In November 2010 we started direct flights from various places in Anatolia and Germany, such as from Gaziantep and Trabzon, where no flights to Frankfurt had existed before. Currently we have 88 direct flights between Turkish cities to Frankfurt. Frankfurt is our top destination from Turkey. We also have a branch in Frankfurt, employing nearly 40 people. They run an after-sales operation as well as deal with corporate and agency agreements.
In 2011 you are establishing SunExpress Germany. Can you tell us what the impact of this will be?
Over the summer months we experience a tourist boom in the south of Turkey, but in winter the demand goes down. We have realized that if we wish to grow as an airline, we need to keep our aircraft in the air, even over the winter months. Our idea is to operate to Turkey in summer and then shift our capacity to other destinations from Germany in winter. By establishing a company in Germany we can fly more routes from Germany to elsewhere. We mainly carry German passengers in our operations anyway, and as such they know us. The shareholder association between Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines has been a long one, and we have been serving Germany for 21 years. In summertime, our main destinations are Antalya, Izmir, and Istanbul. However, for winter 2012 we intend to shift our focus mainly to North Africa. We expect this strategy to significantly affect our financials.
In terms of German tourism in Turkey, how does 2011 compare to recent years, and what are your expectations?
The first three months of 2011 have been the same as recent years, but demand is showing signs of increasing. Tour operators and early reservation statistics are telling us that 2011 will be better than 2010. We carry a significant number of German tourists, and a 2% to 3% increase for a German destination is positive. Germany is a well-established market, and there are a good number of Germans coming to Turkey in winter. If we can attract more demand for health tourism, then we will increase that number even more significantly.
The government has a goal of attracting 50 million annual visitors to Turkey by 2023, the centenary of the Republic. What do you think Turkey needs to do, as a whole, to make that a realistic goal?
We need to geographically diversify our tourism product. SunExpress has started direct flights to Anatolian destinations, such as Trabzon. Trabzon is home to many tourist attractions, including the Sumela Monastery, which attracts many faith tourists. We are also seeing more and more people heading to Van, Gaziantep, and Batman, which are also home to historical, religious, and natural wonders. However, the numbers travelling to these areas are not significant enough, and tourism remains focused on sun, sea, and sand in this country. If we work to attract attention to Turkey’s other charms, then we will see more significant increases in the number of tourists across the board.
Which are your most popular Anatolian routes, not including Antalya?
Hatay is very popular. It is home to many churches and synagogues. Gaziantep and Zeugma are also popular, and are well known for their museums. Mardin is also an attractive destination, as is Tatvan, near Van. Kars and Cappadocia are also famous, and if we can effectively advertise these places internationally we can attract more tourists. The right strategy for these destinations, however, is package-tour deals, as they are small destinations and are really only big enough for a couple of days of tourism. These cities try to advertise themselves as single destinations when they really need to band together and form package-tour deals.
Can you tell us about your fleet?
Currently we have 25 aircraft in southwest Turkey and are expecting three more aircraft soon, meaning we will have 28 by the end of 2011. They are all Boeing 737-800NG aircraft.
As more carriers start to look at Turkey and the market becomes more saturated, what would you say are SunExpress’ competitive advantages?
Our central focus is cost savings. We constantly strive to reduce ticket prices, while remaining competitive on the operations and technical side. There are always ways to slim our costs. Our second advantage is our knowledgeable staff, and there are people who have been working for SunExpress for 10-15 years. We have a truly multicultural company, with a staff including Germans, Italians, Belgians, Austrians, Americans, French, and British on top of the Turkish majority. In addition, it is a huge plus that we have two very good and established shareholders: Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines. We are subject to audits from the Turkish authorities, as well as Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines. Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines also support us in terms of training. Additionally, we have high-quality aircraft, and our wealth of experience—21 years in the market—makes us the oldest charter company
In terms of financials, how do you assess your performance in 2010, and what’s your outlook for 2011?
In 2010, we experienced a slight loss for the first time in 10 years, though this was because of significant investments in new routes and new aircraft. In 2010 we purchased six aircraft directly from Boeing. Previously, we had generally leased our aircraft. Over the preceding 10 years, we made a profit, and 2011 is looking good so far. The only concern is the impact of rising fuel costs. It has increased more than we expected and has risen above our budget. We therefore implemented cost-saving measurements, especially on fuel consumption. We are also working to increase our yield. There is huge potential in summer, and early reservation bookings are better than in 2010. I believe we will end 2011 in good shape.
What is your vision for the future of SunExpress?
Currently, we have domestic and international flights from Antalya, Izmir, and Sabiha Gökçen airport in Istanbul. So of course we would like to grow. We have a five-year business plan and we hope we can achieve our targets. Our growth rate is really significant. We would like to fly to various countries within a three- or four-hour radius. As well as increasing the number of destinations, we would like to increase our frequency to current destinations. In 2011 we started flying from Izmir to Helsinki, Basel, and also started an Izmir-Erzincan route. Our plan is to increase both domestic and international routes.
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